At the end of June, lockdown restrictions began to lift across much of the UK. Overnight stays were no longer forbidden and pubs welcomed back customers after three months of closure. And then, just as things appeared to be returning to some kind of normality, Leicester was hit with another lockdown. All non-essential shops in the city were to shut, pupils would be kept home from school and pubs and restaurants were to remain closed.
Leicester’s lockdown, enforced on the 30th of July after the city reported 10 percent of all positive coronavirus cases in the country, was described by Matt Hancock as a necessary “broader measure”.
It was the first of the government’s local lockdowns, but it wouldn’t be the last. While nationwide restrictions may have ended months ago for much of England, pockets of the country continue to live under strict rules as infection rates rise. In Greater Manchester, Durham, West Yorkshire and Leicester, households are forbidden from mixing, and further restrictions have been threatened.
Abiding by a lockdown in order to stop the spread of coronavirus is a fair trade-off – but only if the policy actually works. Recent analysis from Labour shows that despite additional restrictions, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen in 19 out of 20 areas with local lockdowns. In Burnley, cases have risen from 21 per 100,000 people to 434 per 100,000, while in Bradford, they rose from 54 per 100,000 to 258 per 100,000 – equivalent to a 381 percent increase. Leicester is the only place not to have seen a rise in cases.
Understandably, these figures have prompted many to ask why local lockdowns aren’t having their intended effect. Is it because people are not sticking to the rules? Do lockdowns only work when they apply to the whole country? And what alternatives are there for stopping the spread of the virus?
VICE News spoke to Paul Hunter, professor of medicine and health protection at the University of East Anglia, for his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of local lockdowns.
SCHOOLS ARE STILL OPEN
Prof Hunter does not argue for the closure of schools, however he does point out the difficulties of containing a coronavirus outbreak when places like secondary schools – where hundreds of young people mix every day – remain open.
“From an epidemiological point of view, some of the key issues are, ‘What school educational establishments are still working?’” says Prof Hunter. “If you look at the most recent Public Health England weekly surveillance summary, the single biggest number of clusters are occurring in educational establishments, particularly in secondary schools.”
If schools remain open, a local lockdown may have little impact. “That's a big one,” Prof Hunter says. “We're not closing our educational establishments.”
PEOPLE IN DEPRIVED AREAS MAY FIND IT HARDER TO SOCIALLY DISTANCE
Recent Guardian analysis shows that the poorest areas of England are four times as likely to face a local lockdown as the wealthiest. Those in deprived areas often live with overcrowded housing, and may work in industries that make it hard to socially distance.
This has an impact on how easy it is to follow lockdown rules.
“Many of these [local lockdown] areas are in relatively deprived zones,” says Prof Hunter. “It's much more difficult for people in deprived areas to properly socially distance [when] they've got high population density, in housing. Many people, when they are in work, are in jobs that are very much consumer-focused.”
He continues: “If you are a bus driver or a lorry driver or a shop assistant in a supermarket, it is very difficult for you to essentially distance. All of these things add together.”
HOSPITALITY AND ENTERTAINMENT VENUES ARE STILL OPEN
Under local lockdown rules, people are permitted to visit restaurants, bars and other venues with members of their own household. All venues are required to close at 10PM.
Despite these restrictions, socialising in this way can contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Data presented to MPs in the north and the Midlands today suggests that more than 30 percent of coronavirus infections among the under-30s can be linked to pubs and restaurants.
“A big issue is the continuation of the entertainment industry, pubs, bars, restaurants,” says Prof Hunter. “They're not necessarily the major driver of infection, but they do contribute to transmission.”
IT’S HARD TO STICK TO THE RULES
“In theory, these local lockdowns should work if they are being implemented properly and people are following the guidance,” Prof Hunter says. “They're clearly not, or at least many of them are clearly not because case numbers are continuing to rise and indeed, continuing to accelerate.”
He adds that it is hard to deduce why some people may not be abiding by the rules.
“I don't have definitive evidence, this impression I have – and it's not scientific – but the problem is that a lot of people have lost faith,” he says. “Some of the reports that are coming through behavioural science papers [suggest] that people have lost faith in the government's ability to manage this. [They] don't necessarily feel that they need to do the things that they're being asked to do when they see people who should know better in politics and public life deciding that actually, the rules don't necessarily apply to them.”
SO, WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
In short, local restrictions can’t control the virus as effectively as a nationwide lockdown, but this comes with its own economic and social problems.
“If what we had in March and April, the intensity of the lockdown that we were seeing there was enough to bring the R value to less than one in its entirety,” says Prof Hunter. “You can't point to a single thing that was done that actually by itself made the difference. It was lots of different things that we stopped doing.”
“I don't think there's any doubt that a stronger lockdown would [help]. If we went back to March, April, then, you know, within about two to three weeks, I'm sure we would start seeing a fairly marked reduction in cases,” he adds. “But whether the downsides of that are sufficiently worth it, that's the big issue, and that's not a scientific decision. Really, that's a political debate.”