It’s hard to report on a lockdown when you are living in the middle of it. Friends ask what it’s like in Leicester at the moment and the honest answer is I haven’t got a clue. My wife and I took the bikes out last Sunday afternoon and rode the southern boundary of the city. Very few people were on the streets. Either they’re all sitting indoors watching Homes Under the Hammer or they’ve all gone to East Midlands Airport to escape.
Then we rode into the northern middle of the city, the area worst affected by Covid-19 according to the statistics, and found much the same. All quiet apart from a few takeaway queues with people keeping their distance. Parks, considered by some to be hotbeds of non-social distancing, were deserted. Spinney Hill held cricket tournaments four weeks ago. Now you could bat all day and not hit a soul.
A couple of friends decided to see what life was like outside the city. They avoided the police at Oadby and jumped the wall, as it were, at the village of Great Glen: only to report “much the same”. They did, however, see a chap coming out of the Royal Oak.
Lockdown in Leicester is really a game of two halves with no result. Ivan Browne, the city’s director of public health, first noticed an unusual upward trend in infections at the beginning of June. He reported it to Public Health England, which confirmed the increase on 15 June. When the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, declared an “outbreak” on 18 June, the city’s mayor, Peter Soulsby, said it was the first he had heard of it. A figure of 141 cases per 100,000 people for the week ending 28 June indicated that Leicester had the highest rate of Covid-19 in England – three times that of Bradford, the next highest city, on 46.
At this point, Soulsby appeared to drop his scepticism about closing the city; while the government insisted it was time to lock down. So down we went on 29 June, only to be told to stay at home for another fortnight on 16 July, when the city’s weekly infection rate stood at 119 new cases per 100,000 people, against a UK average of 13.2.
So ends the first half. The infection rate in Leicester was high on 18 June, soaring by 28 June, and is still very high, if turning, on 16 July.
The second half concerns finding the cause of Covid-19, or should I say the culprit?
The wards with the highest rates are the most deprived and overcrowded. In the history of public health, nothing new there. But they are also places with large British Asian populations and it is here that identifying the source of the outbreak gets tricky. Although Soulsby has said these are the wards that should be in lockdown, not the whole city, he and Ivan Browne have refused to speculate on why these areas test so highly.
The figures are too broad-brush, they say. At a webinar with doctors in the heart of the affected area (9 July), which included Browne, Dr Rajiv Wadhwa drew attention to the heightened dangers posed by Covid-19 in areas with relatively high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Both Soulsby and Browne say we will only be able to locate causes with any degree of certainty once we can micro-test entire communities.
My wife and I received our kits from the door-to-door testers one morning and very neat they are too, although mine was missing the most important part, the swab. We await government re review on 30 July and that, for now, appears to be that.
If Leicester does micro-test successfully – something the whole country is going to have to get used to – it will demonstrate how a local authority can deploy its knowledge and expertise. There is not a street in Leicester that Soulsby doesn’t know or hasn’t canvassed. If the city is going to come out of this with a positive result for the country as a whole – like when it found a king in a car park – then the return of trust and resources to local government might be it.
But Covid-19 has also exposed a nasty case of sweated labour – garment workers on less than half the minimum wage, working and living in cramped conditions, spreading the virus (it is reasonable to assume) in the very wards where the rate is highest.
Victorian Leicester was built for small-scale production, with yards and workshops in every terrace. Nowadays they are specialist garages or art studios. But many are garment factories, which to take one example from an industry of 12,000 workers, are part of a chain that allegedly stretches from dingy workshops in north Leicester, to intermediary companies in Manchester, to cheap flash brands such as Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal, both owned by the Boohoo Group. It’s a long catwalk from Leicester’s Faiza Fashion factory to Beverly Hills, but the Kamani family behind the group, which is reportedly worth £4.3bn, have made it.
Fashion has to change. So, too, do those who make big money out of it. When the Edwardians wanted to force change, they put the seamstresses and the button-hole makers on show in London’s Langham Place as a prelude to the first minimum wage act of 1909. Now the National Crime Agency appears to be involved, it looks like Nasty Gal may have to boohoo her way back to respectability. The question is how long the council knew about the sweatshops on its own doorstep and how little it did about it.
So, what’s it like being locked down in Leicester? The city has knuckled down. Many feel bamboozled by the figures. People can’t know whether they’ve been picked on or picked out by the government, but they accept it for now. Through all the argy-bargy, the city knows that people are dying here who shouldn’t be.
As for what’s been going on in the fashion business, that’s a real shame. Everybody wants local economies to succeed. Around the corner, Archer’s Butchers, Tiny Bakery and Julie’s Cycles stood by their customers. Morelli’s Barbers, Northern Cobbler, Bar Dos and Babelas, and even the poor old Conservative Club, all deserve a fair go. We look forward to coming in from the cold.
Robert Colls is professor of history at De Montfort University, Leicester