Whacking the mole

In recent months, Boris Johnson has repeatedly said that the Government is ready to play “whack-a-mole”, shutting down any area that sees a Covid-19 outbreak. Last week, Leicester “got whacked”, said The Economist. “As the rest of the country reopened”, the East Midlands city of 340,000 people closed down. Elsewhere, Bradford, Wrexham, Barnsley and Rochdale were also pushing close to 50 weekly new infections per 100,000 people; and localised outbreaks have forced the closure of a meat processing factory in south Wales and an A&E department in the PM’s own constituency in west London. “We are living through a national crisis,” said Paul Johnson in The Times, but also “a series of local crises”. There are discernible patterns. Death rates are higher in more deprived, older and more densely populated areas. But there’s an element of randomness, too. “Similar, neighbouring areas have often had very different experiences.”

In Leicester’s case, the resurgence is no great mystery, said Manzoor Moghal in the Daily Mail. Within weeks of lockdown, I noticed that many in my city – “particularly workers in the local textile factories that provide so much employment – and in the densely-packed markets where a lot of Asian food is sold, had given up observing social distancing”. Leicester’s clothing industry is “a bizarre microeconomy” where £4 to £4.50 is the going rate for sewing machinists, said Sarah O’Connor in the FT. “Fast fashion” retailers have managed to outcompete rivals by contracting out to “tiny sweatshops crammed into crumbling old buildings”, many of which use illegally low-paid workers (see page 41). Unsurprisingly, many of these do not observe health and safety rules. Government incompetence has also played a part, said The Guardian. There are two main sets of Covid testing data, Pillar One from the NHS, and Pillar Two from private-sector providers. In Leicester, the Pillar Two data – which showed a sharp spike – was not provided to local health officials for 11 days. By that time, a renewed lockdown was inevitable. Sadly, this pattern is being repeated across the nation.

Countries such as South Korea and Germany have shown that small outbreaks can be contained, said David McCoy in The Guardian, if an active test-and-trace regime is in place. “Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, the Government’s over-centralised, fragmented, semi-privatised patchwork” has proved “inadequate and cumbersome”. At least Britain’s testing capability is now much improved, said Fraser Nelson in The Daily Telegraph – it’s pushing 300,000 a day. Last week’s data showed Leicester had 130 weekly infections, Bradford 46, London just three. The southwest of England, meanwhile, is “virtually Covid-free”. The new data will allow us to fight the epidemic, without causing “needless pain in parts of the country where the virus has almost vanished”.