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30 June 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:53am

Leicester’s lockdown shows how Covid-19 is worsening the UK’s inequalities

The local outbreak is a direct consequence of the city’s economic and social deprivation.   

By Ailbhe Rea

We have our first local lockdown. Leicester, and the surrounding conurbation, will not take part in the planned easing of the national lockdown on 4 July, and all non-essential shops in the area have been ordered to close from today. Schools, meanwhile, will be open only to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, and the local population is being urged to stay at home as much as possible.

In an emergency address to the House of Commons last night, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the city accounted for “10 per cent of all positive cases in the country over the past week”. He explained that, unlike other places that have suffered local outbreaks, such as Weston-Super-Mare and Kirklees, where the spread was contained by closing the relevant factory or admission to the relevant hospital, the Leicester outbreak has spread into the community, and therefore necessitates a local lockdown.

The news somewhat overshadows the Prime Minister’s much-anticipated speech on the economy this morning in which he is expected to announce £5bn of accelerated capital investment for schools, hospitals, roads and other “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects (see Anoosh’s piece for an explainer on where that money will go and the reality of Britain’s crumbling schools). The speech marks what Downing Street hopes will be a turning point in the government’s agenda, as it moves beyond its emergency coronavirus response to return to its election promise of “levelling up” the economy, more essential than ever in the new context of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.

The Leicester lockdown, however, demonstrates the true scale of the challenge of “levelling up” in the context of a pandemic as inequalities become further and further entrenched. The local outbreak in Leicester is no coincidence, but a direct consequence of the socioeconomic conditions of the city.

The Index of Multiple Deprivation, considered the most robust means of measuring deprivation across a large number of factors including income, crime levels and levels of educational attainment, puts Leicester among the most-deprived 10 per cent of local authorities in England. The area fits the profile of many of the areas worst-hit by the pandemic, with a high proportion of black and ethnic minority residents and high levels of poverty and overcrowded housing. 

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Dr Manish Pareek, a consultant at Leicester Royal Infirmary, told the BBC that most of the cases of Covid-19 he has seen are from “inner-city areas which have high levels of ethnic diversity, pockets of deprivation but also quite crowded housing with inter-generational and multi-occupancy households”. These factors “are almost like a perfect storm for a virus to be spread within,” he notes.

We already know from ONS data that mortality rates from coronavirus in the most-deprived areas of England are more than twice as high as in the least-deprived areas. Economic conditions leave certain parts of the country particularly exposed to the health impact of the virus, and, in brutal lockstep, to the worst economic hit. (Brent, which has recorded the highest mortality numbers from the virus, adjusted for age, is also among the areas with the highest proportion of furloughed workers). 

As we enter a new phase of locally-imposed lockdowns, we can expect to see this trend even more starkly. Communities without the economic strength to weather the storm of the pandemic will experience both higher infection spikes, and then lockdowns which contain the spread but exacerbate the already stark economic inequalities: these are areas that were the most deprived before the pandemic, and have been worst-hit by its economic aftershock. 

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Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have spoken of their desire to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the package of measures the US president introduced in the 1930s to counter the economic impact of the Great Depression. It is a new manifestation of their pre-pandemic election commitment to address entrenched economic inequalities across the UK and, as Gove said on Saturday, a model in which the benefits of economic growth are “increasingly concentrated in the hands of the already fortunate”. 

The pandemic has exposed quite how grave these structural inequalities are. The government is hoping to address them with a new raft of spending and investment, but it will be a challenge not unlike mending a leak in a sinking ship. They will be working against the grain of inequalities that are being further and further entrenched by this pandemic.