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.