Leicester is to face a tighter lockdown than the rest of country from Tuesday after the English city reported an increase in coronavirus cases, confronting the government with the first test of its ability to control the virus while opening up the economy.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said non-essential shops had been told to close on Tuesday and schools asked to shut their doors to the majority of their pupils from Thursday. Classes will remain open for vulnerable children and children of critical workers.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday evening, Mr Hancock confirmed the loosening of measures that will allow pubs and restaurants to reopen across the country from July 4 would not take place in Leicester.
“We’ll review if we can release any of the measures in two weeks,” he said, adding that 10 per cent of all positive cases detected in the country over the past week had been detected in the East Midlands city.
A spike of cases there of 350,000 people had led Public Health England (PHE) to support the first big “local lockdown”, Peter Soulsby, the city’s Labour mayor, said on Monday.
“Given the growing outbreak in Leicester we cannot recommend that the easing of the national lockdown set to take place on July 4 happens in Leicester,” Mr Hancock told MPs.
“Unfortunately, the clinical advice is that the relaxation of shielding measures due on July 6 cannot now take place in Leicester. We recommend to people in Leicester, stay at home as much as you can, and we recommend against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester.”
Tighter restrictions would also apply to the suburbs surrounding the city, Mr Hancock said.
Prime minister Boris Johnson had told the BBC earlier in the day that a local “whack-a-mole” strategy used to deal with outbreaks in Weston-super-Mare and around GP surgeries in London would be “brought to bear in Leicester as well”.
Mr Soulsby told the local Leicester Mercury newspaper that the city was being singled out unfairly, adding that the government seemed “determined to be seen to be doing something and has chosen Leicester to do it”. He also said he could not enforce lockdown measures.
But a Downing Street spokesman contradicted the Labour mayor and insisted that “either the local authority or PHE have a range of powers themselves to allow them to contain local outbreaks — for example they can impose temporary closures of public spaces, businesses and venues”.
The spokesman said local lockdowns could include “closing down particular schools or particular groups of schools, potentially limiting admissions to health facilities or — if there were a particular business or premises linked to an outbreak — closing that down temporarily”.
The PHE report called for the closure of non-essential shops and other areas where social gatherings may take place, as well as workplaces where between 5 and 10 per cent of staff had tested positive for Covid-19 within a two-week period.
The outbreak is among younger people who often display few symptoms of infection. However, many live with elderly relatives in the tight-packed housing of east Leicester where the outbreak has occurred. The city is home to many people of Indian and Pakistani heritage, who have died disproportionately from the disease.
Some 866 people tested positive in the two weeks to June 23. But Kamlesh Khunti, professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine at Leicester University and a local GP, said it was impossible to compare with national figures because data from central testing programmes was not routinely published by the government. “We are in a data vacuum,” he said.
Prof Khunti, a member of the Independent Sage group of advisers often critical of government policy, said that enlisting black and ethnic minority community groups to emphasise that social distancing was still necessary could be the best way to tackle the outbreak. “It is about working with inner-city, Bame intergenerational, multilingual families with high risk factors for this disease.”
Meanwhile Greece has extended a ban on tourism from the UK and Sweden at least until July 15, reversing a decision to allow direct flights from all western European countries on July 1.
Haris Theocharis, the tourism minister, told the FT: “Our priority is safety, not numbers [of visitors].”
He added: “I think it’s likely that UK tourists will be able to come after the middle of the month.”
Normally more than 3m tourists from the UK visit Greece every year, the second-largest national group after Germany.
Greece’s success to date in limiting the spread of coronavirus makes it an especially attractive destination this year. The country has recorded 191 deaths after 3,390 infections, with a current “R” transmission number of 0.3, according to EODY, the state public health organisation.
Additional reporting by Kerin Hope in Athens