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What's to stop the people of Leicester 'doing a Cummings'?

Call me a cynic, but I fear the Government is trying to set an example ahead of Super Saturday celebrations

Lockdown in Leicester
The new lockdown in Leicester doesn't add up, writes our columnist Credit: Carl Recine/Reuters

Poor old Leicester. The East Midlands city is the first in the country to be put on the Naughty Step after seeing a “dramatic surge” in coronavirus cases. Lockdown is back for Leicester before it’s even lifted.

Non-essential shops, which have only recently opened their doors, had to pull down the shutters again yesterday and schools will be closed from tomorrow. In Blaby and Birstall, they were dreaming of a blow-dry and a pint of bitter at the end of this week – well, you can forget that now, me duck.

This is what Jeremy Hunt, talking to the Today programme, called “a necessary puncturing of the elation building up to July 4th”. He sounded like a Victorian father sending the children to bed without supper. In the Commons, Matt Hancock set the same censorious, authoritarian tone, insisting that the drastic move was necessary because Covid-19 cases in Leicester “accounted for 10 per cent of all positive cases in Britain over the past week”.

It sounded ominous. But how bad is it really? From June 20 to 26, there were 41 new corona cases in Leicester (compared to zero cases in the City of London and Scotland). Not so much a rampaging plague then as a virus that appears to be weakening and on its way out. Seriously, I’ve seen more dramatic surges in a bidet.

And those 41 are just people who tested positive and are likely to make a full recovery, not cases serious enough to be put on a ventilator. One nurse, reflecting the national picture, told me her hospital was so quiet “it’s like Christmas Day without the bacon rolls”. Frankly, you could see where the bewildered Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, was coming from when he claimed ministers were imposing new restrictions “based on data that doesn’t add up”.

The Government has been secretive about its test results, but Toby Young, who runs the excellent Lockdown Sceptics, managed to do a rough calculation: “135/100,000 are infected in Leicester. Leicester has a population of 329,839 so that’s 444 infected people in Leicester. The fatality rate of Covid-19 is 0.25 – so, of those 444, 1 person will die.”

Let’s express that in human terms. An awful lot more businesses will go under, thousands of children will lose yet more schooling and many more men and women will not get tested for cancer and other serious diseases in order to save one individual, or a very small number at most.

And that’s if the good burghers of Leicester choose to cooperate with the second lockdown, having watched their Southern counterparts protesting illegally in Whitehall. Is the Government planning on putting tanks on the road to Oadby to prevent citizens escaping? What’s to stop people doing a Dominic Cummings and driving to Market Harborough to “test their eye sight”?

The town’s delightful Three Swans Hotel, where your columnist enjoyed her first romantic dinner at the age of 16 (thank you for the prawn cocktail and steak and chips of blessed memory, Andy), will be open from Saturday, hopefully doing a roaring trade. Does Matt Hancock really believe no one will travel the 16.9 miles from Leicester to Harborough to join in the fun?

It’s absurd. About as absurd as telling people they are permitted to have a wedding, but the bride’s father can’t link arms to walk her down the aisle and the happy couple must wash their hands before exchanging rings. Oh, and “organs are allowed but must be cleaned before and after”. Who needs a best man’s embarrassing, smutty jokes when you’ve got the clowns at the Department of Health?

The cynical view, and after three months of isolation I’m afraid I can hardly muster any other kind, is that the Government is making an example of Leicester “pour encourager les autres”. (As Voltaire slyly put it, “it is thought wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others”.) If the Leicester “spike” was evident over seven days ago, why didn’t ministers act before the weekend? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that July 4 is our independence day and shutting down a city this week is a draconian way of warning everyone not to go mad, could it?

Of course Leicester needs to take care. It has one of the most diverse populations in the country with white British (45 per cent) and Indian (28 per cent) comprising the largest ethnic groups. As we have seen during the pandemic, BAME citizens are more susceptible to Covid. The city has had a problem with tuberculosis (around 40.5 per 100,000 compared with 10.9 in England and Wales), there was a serious outbreak in one school years ago, affecting both staff and pupils. I can’t remember anyone suggesting Leicester should be put into quarantine.

The Secretary of State for Health seems to be under the curious impression that a greater number of Covid infections is a problem. They’re not if the person who has the virus is asymptomatic, as most young people are, or if they make a good recovery, as nearly everyone does. Only corona cases that require hospitalisation are a worry, and they are mercifully few.

“A lot of people will be irritated, a lot of people will be puzzled and others quite angry, particularly businesses that were opening,” says Mayor Soulsby. Can you blame them? The prevalence of the virus in their city is 0.135 per cent, only slightly higher than the national figure of 0.09 per cent. That’s not an epidemic. Sensible hygiene measures, and determined shielding of care homes and the vulnerable, should be enough to keep it at bay.

On Saturday, many of the restrictions we have endured as a nation for three months are to be lifted. It should be a joyous day of release for the British people, but one city is excluded from the celebrations. Leicester is being treated as a social experiment, a cautionary tale for the rest of the country, not a city of individuals whose happiness and livelihoods depend on getting their freedom back. It’s hard to suppress suspicions that this is for reasons of social control, not health.

Put it this way: if I lived in Leicester, I might find myself in urgent need of an eye test. At the Three Swans Hotel in Market Harborough.

Listen to Planet Normal, her podcast with fellow Telegraph columnist, Liam Halligan, on the audio player above or subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app.