The Longest Lock-down in the World

Leicester citizens are struggling. We knew there was a local spike in cases of Covid-19 and thought the powers-that-be might delay shops, pubs and restaurants opening in parts of the city, but the announcement of such a strict lock-down came as a horrible shock. Up till then, it had felt as if our hopes had been raised and an end was in sight. Some of us had booked holidays with much loved and worried-about family members. I cried when I realised I would have to miss my Dad’s 95th birthday at the weekend – that’s my Dad who was very ill but miraculously survived the virus.

Restaurants dispose of food that won’t now be eaten, children pick up the worry and frustration in their parents voices and become more restless and irritable than ever, teenagers slump back into apathy, and parents wonder how they will survive the summer. Self-harm is increasing – certainly anecdotally – along with alcohol consumption and disordered eating. Angry, bemused texts and emails fly between friends and no doubt social media is full of  conspiracy theories and racist slanders. Some are saying that the Black Lives Matter protest is to blame. In fact, this was a well behaved and well distanced event in Leicester.

In some ways it feels worse than the initial lock-down. We are not supposed to drive or walk into the countryside just a few metres from our house as it is over the lockdown boundary. Some Leicester families with holidays booked in late July have had their booking cancelled; and it is now impossible to book anything, even for the Autumn, if you are unlucky enough to have a Leicester postcode. The guidelines have been very unclear, changing day to day, with discrepancy between those on the central government and city websites. Both instruct us to stay at home unless it is essential but one says we can meet outdoors in groups of six, and it is unclear whether we are allowed to meet in gardens. There is much that is open to interpretation, fuelling family bickering.  At the weekend, the police presence in the city was much more evident than earlier in the pandemic. Cars were being stopped on the main roads out of central Leicester and people sitting chatting in the parks were being moved-on. Having said that, I have to say that the police presence seems to have lessened since the weekend, when they were clearly  wanting to give a strong message that the lock-down was to be taken seriously.

It is hard not to kick against it. When the first lockdown happened on the 23rd March, I knew lots of people with the virus, some of them very ill. It had been clear for at least a week that we needed to move up a gear, and the government’s decision came as a relief –  although, if I’d known lock-down was going to carry on so long, I might have felt more anxious. This time feels very different. I know no-one in Leicester with the virus at the present time and neither do most of my friends. There is much angry debate, even amongst doctors, about whether it is the right decision for Leicester. Like a lot of people, I have studied the graphs and there is clearly a real problem, but the track and testing system is so problematic that the figures are open to interpretation. It is hard for everyone when the only thing we know for certain is that the testing ‘evidence’ is faulty.

Apparently, most of the cases in Leicester are under sixty (average age 39) and I worry that lock-down will have pushed a lot of infected people, including the asymptomatic and untested, back, 24/7, back home into crowded households where they may pass it on to their parents and grandparents – a mini ‘care home effect’.  Hospital staff talk a lot about ‘foot-fall’, taking care to share out jobs so that individual staff are exposed as little as possible to Covid-positive patients.  There is clearly thought to be a ‘dose’ relationship with this virus, high exposure making it both more likely that people are infected in the first place, and more likely that they become seriously ill. So I worry about ‘foot-fall’ in those cramped houses and fear the number of infected and the number of seriously ill might get worse before it gets better.

John reminds me that we had both been doubtful about pubs and restaurants opening on the 4th July anyway, concerned that the number of daily new cases was still too high and the track and testing system too incompetent. Why do I feel so cross about it then? But so many are cross, furious in fact.

What’s happened to us in Leicester seems to feed into a sense of injustice and unfairness. Most of us have spent the last few weeks trying to be good, trying to do the right thing, trying to just get on with it and not complain. It’s as if we’re now being punished by a parent we have no respect for, sent to our bedroom for a crime we haven’t committed, singled-out, picked-on, made an example of, humiliated even. There is nothing like perceived unfairness to make one feel like a child. There are many things about this situation to feel justifiably angry about, but somehow this particular anger feels regressed, out of control, as if the whole city is on the edge of having a temper tantrum, or, at best, descending into a massive sulk.

The scenes of over-crowded, airless textile factories and stories of dubious working conditions make me both cross and ashamed and I worry what it will do to race relations in the city. A letter from Adam Clarke, the deputy mayor, tells us that Public Health England found no evidence that specifically links textile factories to the spike in cases. He goes on to explain how much the city council has done in the past few years to try to sort out the issue of criminal employment practices, setting up the only multiagency task force in the country and pushing the government to make it possible to intervene more proactively. Meanwhile, this Government has not implemented a single recommendation from a 2017 House of Commons Special Committee report on the garment industry. Yet there is a danger that the story will stick, undermine the Leicester ‘brand’; and meanwhile we have to tolerate Priti Patel and Matt Hancock expressing their shock and horror about the goings-on in our much loved city. How convenient. There is a sense of helplessness, not just about our present plight, but about the reputation of the city in the future, and how this will effect businesses and the universities, our tolerance, our vibrancy and our positive multicultural ethic.

For some of my patients, who have been brutally knocked back so often in their lives, the announcement of a further lock-down for an indefinite period has pushed them into a very dark and despairing place, the sense of helplessness so profound that they are in danger of giving up. Some of them are shielding and will have been shut away with only their demons for company for a third of the year.

It is the longest lock-down in the world. No wonder people are depressed.

I have been open about the feelings within me that have been bubbling to the surface, but I should make it clear that I am not against targeted lock-downs. Linked to a competent system of test and tracing with credible and transparent statistics, they are clearly the way forward if other measures fail to stop an exponential rise in cases. But there was something cruel about our excitement and anticipation being dashed; something cruel about the timing of Leicester’s lock-down coinciding with the rest of the country partying and the ramped-up celebratory messages coming from Johnson and colleagues.

I shall try to finish with an attempt to be positive. First, the Leicester situation seems to have prompted attention to the degree of fragmentation undermining the government’s public health approach. That said, Leicester mayor, Peter Soulsby, and other city mayors, are  clear that the information about cases identified by the commercially run track and  testing system is still not adequate and not reaching their local public health teams quickly enough.  Second, exposing the state of some of our small factories offers an opportunity to sort them out, once and for all, hopefully not just in Leicester but across the country.  

Who knows, maybe Leicester will emerge not too scarred by the experience and even thankful that we were not able to embrace the easing up of restrictions that may well lead to other parts of the country being stricken at a later date. Meanwhile, I guess we just have to get on with it, looking after each other, taking each day as it comes, trying not to let our tempers fray, but recognising that we are under a huge amount of pressure and that a bit of self-compassion is in order.

3 thoughts on “The Longest Lock-down in the World

  1. Once again , thanks Penny, so true for many. But let’s focus on your last paragraph…Leicester identifying and shouting about two big issues that the media have picked up on and which other cities have been pleased to identify with. More data was released, I don’t know if it’s speedy and sufficient enough for detailed use, I doubt it, but there is some improvement. Let’s hope the sweat shop regulation chaos is tackled; I heard someone on Radio Four PM talking about combining the work of the Gov’t agencies more effectively. Can but hope.

    On an issue closer to me: I don’t think I’ve heard anyone talk about those who don’t drive or have a car in their household, for whatever reason. The advice is still to avoid public transport (even when we are allowed to cross the border) and certainly I for one will be very anxious. Yet in 2011 Census (I don’t have any more recent figures) 37% of Leicester households did not have a car. While the % may have grown, at that time Leicester ranked 325 out of 348 local authorities. I can’t imagine our ranking will have changed much. Even the places with the highest car ownership still had 10% car- less households. And don’t let’s forget that households does not mean people. Most households with a car have one, often, not always, driven most of the time, by the male adult.

    So I imagine there are many older folk who like us , wonder when we’ll ever travel without anxiety across or outside the City again. And I’m also thinking of the younger, low income people in the City especially single mums with kids, who don’t have the comfort of travelling in their own, safe vehicles, for work, shopping, or leisure and family visits. I’m thinking of all the people who used to pack our buses in the city. (Women being in the majority) Cycling really isn’t for everyone and taxi drivers are one of the highest risk groups, so that’s no longer an attractive option.

    This is not really a lockdown issue, it’s a new reality. I used to think we were doing the right thing not buying a car (though altruism is not how it started) and it’s never before held us back from visiting friends, family and many wonderful places. Now I feel very sad and a little trapped.

    Ann

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  2. I can feel your anger, Penny. I am angry too but as time passes I am probably moving slowly towards acceptance of the lockdown here in Leicester, reserving my indignation for the government that has so grievously mishandled the emergency.

    I have been appalled by the representations of Leicester by some in the media and impressed by the way the Council and the local public health director have responded with calmness, dignity, resilience and resolve. Without rancour they have pointed out the failings of the test and tracing system to yield the data needed to get on top of the local outbreaks, and by ensuring that households in the affected areas get access to tests as soon as possible. And they have shown what they have tried to do for some time to prevent, as far as their powers allow, any allegedly bad and unlawful employment practices that may have contributed to these spikes.

    Nevertheless the damage to the city’s reputation is likely to be huge. To see the residents of Melton Mowbray, town of pet food and pork pie production and only 15 miles away, quoted in a headline in their local paper “Stay away from our town” was shocking. Local people booking a pitch on a camping website having it removed by the campsite managers without even the courtesy of a phone call is neither intelligent nor kind, to quote a phrase.

    The only sign of encouragement we have had this week is that John Lewis have not announced the closure of their flagship store in the city’s High Cross shopping centre.

    I am pleased to live in what the Guardian’s estimable John Harris this week described as a “fascinating city……vivacious and diverse” and am upset to see it portrayed by others as something of a pariah state. It is well run and its leaders communicate with its citizens with frequency, clarity and sensitivity.

    My acceptance reverts to depression when I see unsympathetic images and headlines; and anger when I see or hear a succession of government ministers waffle, bluster, dissemble, duck and dive. Dishy Rishi wins the plaudits for throwing borrowed money at a crippled economy, on his own admission privileging speed over differentiation and targeting of response. Then he blows it by failing to wear a mask while serving food in a restaurant. Why?

    We will get through this. I used to be a little dispirited by the city’s Latin motto “semper eadem” but now I find it mildly reassuring. For those of you whose Latin may be a little rusty, let me save you turning to Google translate. It means “always the same”.

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    1. Thank you for this Bryan. I too feel encouraged at the city’s response at all levels. On Thursday, I listened to a webinar run by local GPs and including the professor of public health, Ivan Browne. They communicated with warmth, clarity, good humour and compassion and have produced information in 11 languages. Definitely, Leicester at its best. https://www.willowshealthcare.org/webinars
      It is a bit disappointing to hear people say thay have not seen any translated information until last week, although I gather there has been lots available on social media. I am cross that local health teams, for example, the tuberculosis team and the sexual health team, offered to help Public Health England at the start of the pandemic, but were side-lined, presumably due to PHE’s obsession with central control. These multilingual teams are experts in track and tracing as well as having the particular experience and expertise at working in local areas. Good to see that teams like this are now engaged with our local public health response.
      Still no surge in hospital admissions.

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