Here in Leicester we feel under the national and international spotlight as we enjoy the accolade of being the first lockdown city. The streets were teeming with press, cameras and reporters covering the news of non-essential shops closing again, schools preparing to close, bars and restaurants put on ice, and non-essential travel being prohibited. It really does feel like we were yesterday’s news and are today’s chip paper.
But there’s aspects to this story that have not received sufficient focus in our view. We have a warning to the school and early years community locally and across the country, for how long will this last, and who next and why?
Living and working in Leicester city centre we find ourselves in a new social experiment. It feels like we are under not house but city-arrest. We were all surprised to learn of an increased infection rate from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, in a daily briefing about two weeks ago. Since then we were the focus of public, political and press speculation, and now the subject of direct action.
Early years and childcare started to reopen again from 1 June, attendance was steadily growing. The Monday morning of 15 June saw the city hosting two-hour queues snaking around the city centre streets and corners as retail started to open up again. Roads around drive-thrus were gridlocked. People started to venture out after a three-month enforced hibernation. The community overall has patiently respected lockdown, and a gradual, sensible and cautious return of safe behaviours.
But there is a problem. And that is Leicester has huge poverty and inequalities. Living and working conditions are extremely challenging and unfair for many families even if they want to do their best and follow guidance. Factories, especially food factories, like in other parts of the country and the world, are proving to be hotspots for cross infections. Government financial support has not reached many as they fall within the gaps. I don’t think national health messages have reached or motivated many BAME communities. Indeed the emergency funding allocated to the city has already paid for translated health messages.
But not just these communities, messages were seemingly incomprehensible to our leaders. Even our own elected mayor was caught, and apologised for breaking lockdown rules, and admitted he didn’t understand them, which only enhanced the Cummings effect. People started to ask for whom do these restrictions apply?
The second most important point is that Hancock has gone on record to say children are showing high levels of infection. This has been cited as a key problem. And whilst their symptoms are mostly mild, they are spreading the virus between each other and at home and in their communities. That is behind the decision to close the schools in Leicester this week. This has huge connotations for children and families returning to early years, childcare and schools.
The third concern for me, was the initial announcement stated the extended lockdown was for two weeks before it was reviewed. Then we were told no decision will be made before 18 July 2020. That is three-weeks in old money. And when will sufficient data be identified and shared to relax our current conditions? Could it be four, six, or 12 weeks? Our whole sector and other communities should beware. Localities that share similar characteristics to Leicester, like Bradford, Rotherham, Bedford and Oldham (and others) need to prepare now for what could be an even more difficult time ahead.