Are local lockdowns working? The data suggests they’re not tough enough

Analysis of the latest figures on Covid-19 cases shows most areas with local restrictions are still experiencing rises. 

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Local lockdowns are in force in 21 local authorities across England and Scotland. How successful they have been – and even, in some places, whether they were needed at all – remains open to question. 

Analysis of the latest data on positive cases by the New Statesman has found 12 of the 21 areas in local lockdown are experiencing more Covid-19 cases per capita than when the restrictions were put in place. In the case of Pendle, in Lancashire, the rate of positive tests had more than doubled nine days after the lockdown came into force. 

Six of the ten boroughs in Greater Manchester have seen an increase in positive cases, with Oldham’s numbers rising to 12 per 100,000 people in the week to 8 August. 

Reports in recent days have suggested that Oldham could now face a more restrictive lockdown following the rise in infections, which according to the government has occurred due to people flouting the existing rules.

 

Mixing in private homes has been banned in Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire for the past ten days, while some indoor leisure facilities have also been forced to remain closed. But the latest figures suggest this has not worked – or at least, not enough to bring case numbers down. 

This approach is significantly less restrictive than the one taken in Leicester, where the outbreak was more severe. There, schools and non-essential shops were forced to close between 30 June and 24 July. Pubs and leisure facilities also remained closed, just as they were opening in the rest of England. 

The chart below shows the stricter approach in Leicester seemed to have more impact, with the rolling seven-day rate of new cases falling from more than 20 to fewer than ten during this period. However, schools and shops re-opened at that point  and cases have since plateaued. 

 

These figures raise questions about how strict lockdown measures need to be to have an impact on infection rates. Less strict (but less easily enforceable) measures, such as visiting other households, seem to have less of an impact than the more draconian (but easier to implement) approach of closing schools and shops. But there are plenty of unknowns that make the equation far from simple: how many cases there were when lockdown began; how effective local track and tracing measures are; how many people are tested. Early test cases of local lockdowns give us an indication, rather than a prescription, for a one-size-fits-all solution that “works”. 

Governments across the world face similar struggles to prevent the spread of the virus while also promoting economic growth. The UK government’s approach to implementing lockdowns has also faced criticism, with no fixed criteria on which areas could face tougher restrictions and, in the case of Greater Manchester, just a few hours’ notice provided before they were enforced. 

These decisions take place in conjunction with local authorities, but the amount of publicly available data on a local level is limited and the process can seem opaque as a result. The only information available comes in the form of a “watchlist” of areas, published weekly by Public Health England (PHE).  

PHE says this is "produced by first considering the lower tier local authorities with the highest weekly incidence rate and its trend, combined with a range of other indicators including the test positivity rate, an assessment of the local response and plans, and the trend of other metrics such as healthcare activity and mortality”. 

The classification decision is, they add, "a blended assessment drawing on professional judgement”. That might make epidemiological sense, but it is a top-down approach and one which makes it hard for local authorities – let alone businesses – to plan ahead. 

In an effort to make the available local Covid-19 data more accessible, the New Statesman has launched a local lockdown prediction tracker to help identify which areas across the UK are at risk of being locked down. 

The lockdown in the North – which includes much of Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, as well as Greater Manchester – suggests the government is prepared to introduce very broad “local” lockdowns, sometimes including areas that actually have relatively low levels of disease prevalence. 

All of Greater Manchester’s ten boroughs were “locked down” with around three hours’ notice at the end of July despite having significant variation in the prevalence of Covid-19. 

In Oldham, the number of people testing positive in the week to 30 July had risen to 65.4 per 100,000 residents, more than seven times as high as the rate for England as a whole. The proportion of tests that returned positive stood at 3.9 per cent, suggesting the level of coronavirus circulating among the population in Oldham was likely higher than what was being detected, with the England average at 0.9 per cent. 

 

Oldham, then, was experiencing a genuine spike in Covid-19. The same cannot be said of Wigan, which recorded just 5.8 cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 0.6 per cent over the same period. 

The New Statesman’s risk tracker includes a system of categorising each local authority in the UK daily, based on the risk of a local lockdown in that area. Wigan’s risk category has always been low, yet it faced the same restrictions as the rest of Greater Manchester. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, said at a press conference last week that it would be “impossible to start breaking one borough off and separating boroughs out because Greater Manchester is an interconnected place”. 

The same is true of Rossendale in Lancashire which faced restrictions at the same time as Greater Manchester but had lower levels of positive cases and a lower test positivity rate than England as a whole. 

It seems these areas were locked down based on the situations faced by their neighbours – and the realities of local government geography – rather than the severity of their own coronavirus levels. 

In the absence of a vaccine for Covid-19 it seems inevitable that more local flare-ups will occur and more areas will face localised restrictions on movement. If this “whack-a-mole" tactic is to work, these restrictions may well have to be toughened across the board to prevent rises in cases.

Better publicly available local data and a more transparent decision-making process would help by providing early warning signs that the public could act on. Such openness might also result in greater support when restrictions are imposed. 

Patrick Scott is the data projects editor for the New Statesman Media Group

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