We all sat in front of our screens in Leicester yesterday evening. Hanging on every word uttered by Matt Hancock in the House of Commons. We were not eagerly expecting good news. There was more of a sense of silent dread. The city has been an unusually gloomy place since our lockdown was extended for two weeks. We’re not normally like that.
The reality of our local lockdown is restricted travel in and out of the city (there are Police checkpoints), schools and early years settings are only working with children of keyworkers and vulnerable children, non-essential shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and hairdressers all closed.
The whys and wherefores have been well-scrutinised locally, politically and in the press. They continue to be. There are various theories as to why Leicester was chosen to be locally locked down. Questions remain around what and whose data informed the decision? What social conditions drove a spike in cases? How local is local? What was the reasoning around the geographical boundary drawing? How can the effects of increased testing skew data? And who made the decisions, when and how? I won’t get into any of that. Fascinating as it is. It is just too depressing to live with. The fact remains that for another fortnight we are locked down in Leicester.
I confess it was very annoying to read the press and several congratulatory texts received last night that considered this lockdown to be an ‘easing’. It isn’t much. I live and work right in the centre of the city. Both of my businesses are in the city centre, one of them a shop. And Hancock’s announcement meant nothing will change for me, my household, and those businesses. What has changed, is the city exclusion zone boundary has been redrawn, in favour of neighbouring towns in the county, and local decision-makers have powers over non-essential shops’ opening or closures (what that means remains to be seen), and schools and early years settings can reopen fully from 24 July 2020. A curious offer to schools to reopen in the midst of the summer holidays I have to say. That said, schools must do more to complement local childcare provision and enable it to continue.
It still means that people are discouraged to enter or leave the city for anything other than essential journeys. This is staggeringly destructive for a city like Leicester. You see, Leicestershire and Leicester is like a doughnut. The relatively affluent county of Leicestershire surrounds the ‘hole’ in the middle, Leicester, one of the most impoverished cities you will find. I’m not saying Leicester is a hole, I love the city, but you get my point. Without county folk coming to work, shop or use services, the city is a very different place. The demand for childcare, for shopping, for anything is curtailed significantly. And these effects will be long lasting as people come to view Leicester as a special case, perhaps less safe than elsewhere.
Early years and childcare providers in Leicester are inevitably struggling to manage these changing conditions. Like everywhere else, there was a growing sense of optimism and confidence in childcare use from 1 June 2020. Now we are stuck in reverse gear. Suspended as it were in aspic. With people working from home, the summer holidays, swathes of businesses remaining closed, no migration into the city and these controls over how the population can move and behave, current and likely future demand is very low.
The local authority team, who I know well, reported in one of our online regional networks this month, their response team was in regular contact with providers, information was being shared, risks were being identified. They have been consulting settings, ensuring government funding support is being accessed, and sufficiency is managed. Grant funding has been made available for those who fell between the cracks of the national funding schemes. A package of great support. They also reported parental confidence in returning to using provision is low. Numbers using also remains low.
I would urge any local authority to consider what characteristics they share, or parts of their area shares with Leicester. There could be a need for targeted and differentiated support for providers in those areas. Especially with PPE and safe practices. In Leicester, many children were found to be COVID-19 positive, and whilst they were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, they were going home to cramped housing and multi-generational families, often with vulnerable relatives. This is a key element of risk assessment. In terms of business support and provider sustainability there will be huge need to change and adapt. Our Finding Your Way Through programme helps with this. The sector will experience highly dynamic change of need, demand and preferences, of parents and practitioners and providers. LAs need to be front and centre by market managing this change.
It’s an obvious and easy call to ask for more government funds, but Leicester, already economically deprived enough, is at a further disadvantage by having to endure at least four more weeks of lockdown, and the ripple effects caused by the stigma attached. Two reasons why more could and should be done to help business such as early years and childcare to better weather this storm. Lockdown could go on for weeks or months to come. And there is always the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 in the autumn and winter. The whole sector needs investment, not just in Leicester, to protect it, develop it, change it and help families, businesses and the economy to recover in turn.