While Boris Johnson was asking for “forbearance” on Tuesday from the people of Leicester as they prepared to return to lockdown, in the city’s town centre there was little patience for the decision to pull down the shutters on shops that had only reopened two weeks ago.
After a series of high street failures in recent years in the city in the East Midlands, with the loss of department stores such as Debenhams, Fenwick and House of Fraser, the prime minister’s decision to sign off on a fresh lockdown this week came as a hammer blow.
“The big worry is that now we’ll lose the John Lewis store too,” said Dominic Gomersall, the owner of Lumbers jewellery shop which reopened two weeks ago and was seeing strong trading. “My worry is not doing without income for another couple of weeks, but the long-term damage that this could do. Leicester has been made out like a leper colony. ”
Altus Group, a consultancy on business rates, said that nearly 4,000 shops will be forced to close and another 239 restaurants, 196 pubs and winebars, 97 cafés, and 196 hairdressers will now not be able to open on July 4.
Speaking 50 miles away in the West Midlands town of Dudley, Mr Johnson said that the government had always anticipated “local flare ups” and would continue to tackle these at a local level.
“We are putting on the brakes, and I thank the people of Leicester for their forbearance,” Mr Johnson said, as he promised a planning revolution intended to revive failing high streets and unleash a wave of housebuilding.
Business groups called for additional loans and grants to help companies cope with the continued loss of income, as public health officials warned of the risk of fresh coronavirus spikes forcing other cities back into lockdown.
Adam Marshall, head of the British Chambers of Commerce, said it had petitioned the Treasury to put in specific measures, “including grant and wage support” to help businesses in cities forced to close again.
“When there was a national lockdown, there was a national response. Now we have a local lockdown, we need local support,” said Chris Hobson, policy director for the East Midlands Chamber, “Otherwise we risk a two-tier recovery and Leicester being left behind.”
A Treasury spokesperson referred to existing loan and grant schemes, but declined to speculate on any further measures.
The frustrations in Leicester emerged as the city’s top officials said that the government’s test and track system for Covid-19 was failing to provide timely and accurate information to help control new outbreaks of the disease.
Peter Soulsby, the mayor of the East Midlands city of 350,000 people, said the data had proved inadequate as he moved to close shops, shut schools and curtail all but essential travel.
“It’s all very well telling us that overall the figures in Leicester are high,” Sir Peter said. “What we need to know is what’s happening at neighbourhood level, at street level, because obviously we’re a very diverse city and a very big city.”
Ivan Browne, Leicester’s director of public health, added that the data was “patchy” after it emerged that the city, which has a majority ethnic population, found out at the end of last week that there was a local spike, with 944 new cases in the two weeks to June 26.
A health department spokesperson said the government’s priority was to “protect the public and save lives.”
Leicester’s travails also raised broader questions about the efficacy of the government’s ‘test and trace’ system, as the city authorities sought to isolate and contain the new outbreak.
That lack of information means that the city has little idea whether there are any clusters around the city’s unofficial garment factories, which had kept working for internet retailers during the lockdown period, according to Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for the constituency of North West Leicestershire.
“There may be [outbreaks associated with particular workplaces] but, frankly, no one would be able to say because of the absence of data about where people work,” said Mr Browne, the health director.
The Association of Directors of Public Health warned reliable data would be the key to managing other local outbreaks.
Jeanelle De Gruchy, the ADPH president, said it had been calling “for many weeks” for so-called pillar 2 data — which covers those tested in private, rather than NHS, labs — to be made available to all directors of public health.
“Timely, high quality and consistent data flows will be a key tool in implementing the local outbreak plans that directors of public health are responsible for,” she added.
The government has now begun sharing the community-wide ‘pillar 2’ data on coronavirus cases, but other health directors said that contact tracing was still not quick enough. “None of us can guarantee we won’t be next,” said Greg Fell, director of public health for Sheffield.
So while the rest of the country prepared for what has been widely dubbed ‘Independence Day’ on July 4, in Leicester preparations continued to reintroduce lockdown, with the city council publishing a map throwing a virtual perimeter around the city.
Sir Peter said the city would not be using “roadblocks” to enforce the lockdown, but the government warned it would legislate for new controls if necessary.
But police in the neighbouring city of Nottingham warned they were prepared to fine visitors from Leicester who hoped to enjoy the open shops and pubs there.
National Express, the coach operator, said it would exclude services to and from Leicester from its restart of operations on Wednesday.
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Meanwhile, in Highfields, a multicultural area of tightly-packed terraced houses thought to be one of the worst-hit parts of Leicester, the most obvious sign of the renewed concern was the opening on Tuesday of a new, walk-in testing centre in the middle of the community.
Pausing outside the Highfield Halaal Bakery, an older African-Caribbean woman who had come to be tested with her son expressed regret that testing in the area had not been more aggressive.
“What they should have done is they should have gone to every street and tested them from there — every family,” the woman said, leaning on her stick. “That’s what they should be doing really, so that everybody gets tested. We’ve been for ours.”