A man in the North Evington area of Leicester, which has seen a spike in coronavirus cases (Pic: PA)
Alarm bells should have started to ring in Leicester when the number of people who tested positive for Covid-19 started growing quickly in early June. But they didn’t—because the government kept the numbers secret.
After the first week of June, the number of new cases jumped suddenly from fewer than ten per day to between 50 and 70. And the number stayed at this higher level.
There were no days in May where 60 or more cases were confirmed. Yet in June there were 12 such days.
Why wasn’t Leicester warned?
The government split coronavirus testing into two groups. Pillar 1 comprises all tests conducted in hospitals. Pillar 2 covers tests processed at commercial laboratories, including at-home tests and drive-through tests.
Officials in Leicester, and all other English cities, were routinely given all the Pillar 1 data, but the Pillar 2 data was kept secret.
Looking at the Pillar 1 results alone, the number of cases in the city appeared stable, and easily in-line with expectations.
But the Pillar 2 results told a completely different story. The virus was growing fast and there was a danger of a major new outbreak. Authorities needed to act fast by shutting schools and reimposing the lockdown.
Yet the government did not give Leicester the Pillar 2 data until late on Thursday 25 June. That means that 11 potentially crucial days were wasted.
And because information on other cities was also kept secret, officials couldn’t compare the situation in Leicester with that elsewhere.
Handing over key services to the private sector (see below) has added to the chaos. But instead of blaming the Tories and privatisation for the crisis, some are looking to racist explanations.
Imen has lived in Leicester for six years. “Recently people started blaming the spike in cases on mosques reopening in the city,” she said. “I can see Islamophobia in Leicester being used to divert anger onto the wrong people.”
Leicester is famed as the most multicultural city in Britain. More people from ethnic minority backgrounds live there than people who describe themselves as “white British”. So it was horribly predictable that the spike in cases would lead to a racist response.
Some have blamed Eid celebrations for the spike. The Daily Mail newspaper posted a picture of a local cricket match, watched a by a small Asian crowd, and asked whether such gatherings spread infection.
Social media has been engulfed by far right stooges suggesting that immigrants “brought the problem on themselves” by failing to social distance. Often this sees poor people being blamed for their own poverty.
“People are looking to blame everyone, including eastern Europeans,” said Imen. “There is a lot of talk about there being houses where 30 people live, meaning the virus was able to travel easily. But we have to ask why people are in these conditions?
“Immigrants and black and minority ethnic people are the poorest in this city. Housing is terrible.”
Some people are blaming immigrants, but it's important to say that a lot are blaming the local authority
But she added that not everyone is buying the racist agenda. “Leicester is very multicultural, people are used to different social backgrounds. Some people are blaming immigrants, but it’s important to say that a lot are blaming the local authority.”
As Public Health England finally released findings about Leicester’s outbreak, two things became clear.
First, that the ethnicity of the cases reflects the “ethnicity profile of the population”. That is to say, no particular ethnic groups have suffered more infections than others.
Second, that the two age ranges most affected were the under 19s and those of working age. That suggests that workplaces and schools, rather than mosques and temples, were the likely sites of infection.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has for weeks been at pains to tell us that school reopening is safe. But even he was forced to admit last month, “There has been an increased incidence of children testing positive in Leicester and we think the safest thing to do is to close local schools.”
Ahmad is a medical student in Leicester. He said research shows the main area of infection is the North Evington ward, in the north of the city.
“There has been so much rhetoric about how the Black Lives Matter protests have caused the spike in cases,” he said. “And also how people in the ‘ghettos’ in Leicester aren’t clean.”
But he said the truth is very different.
“North Evington has a high population density with very little land space,” he explained. “A lot of people don’t have gardens or space to properly socially distance. And it is the place with the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in the city.
“Access to care and treatment is very hard to get. And there is also very little [medical] outreach, and even when there is, it isn’t in multiple languages.”
Leicester has around 140 cases per 100,000 of the population. It isn’t the only place to see worrying new outbreaks, or where the number of infected people is thought to be far higher than average.
Public Health England has identified three other major places where infection rates are above 50 cases per 100,000—Bradford, Barnsley and Rochdale.
And there have been significant outbreaks in several factories, in places including Anglesey, Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil, Wakefield and Kirklees.
The spike and subsequent local lockdown in Leicester shows that the coronavirus threat is far from over. And those who live at the crossroads of race and class continue to bear the brunt of it.
Forced into unsafe work in lockdown
Many workplaces in Leicester continued to operate at the height of the coronavirus crisis— putting workers at risk.
A significant outbreak was reported at Walker Crisps factory in the city, with 28 workers testing positive for the virus. It’s the biggest crisp factory in the world, making seven million packets of crisps a day and employing 1,400 people.
More cases were confirmed at the Bradgate Bakery sandwich maker, owned by food manufacturer Samworth Brothers. Its sites employ 1,500 people.
Smaller workplaces have continued to operate too, despite cases of the virus.
Scores of clothing factories in Leicester ran at full capacity during the lockdown—and bosses cared little about the dangers they faced.
A report from campaigning group Labour Behind the Labour revealed last week how workers were put at risk of contracting the virus.
Meg Lewis helped write the report. “We know of several people who had tested positive for coronavirus but were told to continue working and not tell anyone,” she told Socialist Worker.
“And we know that before the coronavirus crisis many of the buildings were very small and cramped. They were often housed in dilapidated buildings with little investment in building safety and modern ventilation.
“Fashion firms sustained their orders throughout the crisis. It is inconceivable that such factories would be able to operate at full capacity while ensuring social distancing and adequate Covid-19 protection measures.”
Meg added that immigration rules made some workers particularly vulnerable. “Some of the workers are migrants, and don’t have status,” she explained. “So there’s a fear of reporting abuses because their status might be used against them. The workers are mainly of a black and minority ethnic background, with around a third not born in Britain. So there are huge vulnerabilities, particularly for those who don’t have English as a first language.
“Pay for most workers is around £3 per hour but for those outside the legal framework, it can be as low as £1 an hour. Yet people are really scared about losing their jobs.”
The online fashion giant BooHoo is one of the main customers for Leicester’s clothing factories. It says it only contracts to workshops that operate safely and legally. But Behind the Label said much of the work ends up subcontracted to smaller “pop-up” businesses.
“The fast fashion economic model is to order small batches of clothes and sell them quickly. A lot of the workshops where they’ll be stitching and cutting are in Leicester.
“This isn’t a case of a few rogue suppliers. It’s part of a much bigger, systemic issue. The fact that BooHoo and other brands were still placing orders [during the lockdown] and were putting pressure on suppliers to deliver those orders in the middle of a pandemic is shocking.
“They need to be held to account.”
BooHoo, however, has no such worries. Shareholders last month awarded its chief executive John Lyttle a whopping £1.04 million payout as a reward for the company’s booming sales and profit figures—heavily boosted during the lockdown.
Private sector won’t share data
Years of Tory cuts have gutted Britain’s public health system. So ministers have handed much Covid-19 testing to private sector providers motivated solely by profit.
And we are all reaping the whirlwind of that decision.
Deloitte is a private company that runs public testing centres. In response to a written parliamentary question, the government last week admitted that Deloitte can keep its data secret.
“The contract with Deloitte does not require the company to report positive cases to Public Health England and local authorities,” it said.
Did more testing cause the spike?
Professor Paul Hunter from the University of East Anglia said it is “possible” that the spike reflects increased testing.
But he said it is “in my view unlikely”. “The most likely explanation is that the infection was spreading in people aged 20 to 50 and this generated greater demand for testing,” he said.
“However there is some evidence that the infection may now be spreading into older and younger age groups.
“As yet there is no apparent impact on hospitalisations or deaths. Though it is too early to be certain that these will not increase.”