Downing Street has been accused of sowing confusion and anxiety in Leicester as it imposes the first local lockdown to combat a surge in Covid-19 cases in the city, with the health secretary facing demands to pinpoint how the measures will work.
In an evening statement to the Commons on Monday, Matt Hancock announced that schools would shut to most children and reopened shops would be forced to close as restrictions were strengthened for two weeks in Leicester.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats back the lockdown but criticism is brewing over the government’s handling of it, with the parties calling for clarity over the details.
The measures mean the city, where more than 300,000 people live, will be set on a different path from the rest of England, which will enjoy new freedoms, including the reopening of pubs and restaurants from 4 July, on what has been labelled “super Saturday”.
Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday that businesses forced to shut their doors again in Leicester will be able to re-furlough their staff from Wednesday if they have used the scheme before.
Enforcing the Leicester lockdown would mean a “legal change”, Hancock said on Monday morning. But the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, whose constituency is Leicester South, urged the health secretary to hold a press conference to answer further questions.
“The government’s response to the situation in Leicester has left people anxious and confused,” Ashworth said. “We support the government’s decision to reintroduce lockdown restrictions. However, there are a number of outstanding questions about how the government intends to implement these restrictions and get the outbreak back under control.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, also backed the call for the government to hold a press conference, highlighting that “people in Leicester are crying out for answers to perfectly legitimate questions”.
Hancock told the Commons the measures – which will be reviewed in two weeks – will also apply to surrounding areas of the city, including Oadby, a town 3 miles south, and the villages of Glenfield and Birstall, 3 miles north.
However, Ashworth said it was not clear how this would work, adding: “There is confusion about essential travel and what it means for people who travel to work outside the boundaries. There is also no clarity about what extra resources will be put in place to increase testing capacity and what financial support will be available to businesses.
“No 10 said the afternoon press conferences would now only take place if the government had ‘something really important to say’. We believe the situation in Leicester meets that criteria.”
A source close to Hancock hit back: “We set this out in parliament yesterday, and took questions for an hour. Labour used to complain that we announced things at press conferences rather than coming to parliament to announce them. I think they are a bit confused about their own position.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said there was “no current plan” for Hancock to hold a press conference on Tuesday, highlighting that the health secretary has spoken already in parliament and given broadcast interviews.
The acting leader of the Lib Dems, Ed Davey, said: “I support the plan to lock down Leicester; the first priority is keeping people safe. However, the government has been totally unclear about how it will enforce the lockdown or whether it even has the legal power to enforce it.
“Senior ministers have said for months as the national lockdown ends local lockdowns are likely, but there seems to have been almost no planning of how this will work in practice.”
“Will there be roadblocks or checks? Will extra funds be made available for businesses and individuals who were just getting back on their feet after months of lockdown?”
Infections in Leicester have increased by nearly 950 in a fortnight, according to the city council. And one in 10 Covid-19 cases in England in the last week were in Leicester. Non-essential shops, which were only allowed to reopen earlier this month as part of lockdown easing, will close from Tuesday, and schools will be shut to all but a small number of children from Thursday.
Hancock said that in some cases the local lockdown would be enforced by police. Speaking to Sky News on Monday morning, he said: “We will be bringing forward a legal change very shortly, in the next couple of days, because some of the measures that we’ve unfortunately had to take in Leicester will require a legal underpinning. We will be making the legal change so non-essential retail is no longer open.”
Asked if people from Leicester could simply drive to other locations to go to pubs and restaurants when they open in the rest of the country, Hancock said: “We’re recommending against all but essential travel both to and from and within Leicester, and as we saw during the peak, the vast majority of people will abide by these rules. Of course, we will take further action, including putting in place laws if that’s necessary, but I hope that it won’t be.”
Commenting on the suggestion new laws would be needed to impose the Leicester lockdown, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The powers to impose lockdowns already exist under the Public Health Control of Disease Act 1984 … The health secretary must sign regulations under this act in order to maintain and reimpose restrictions for Leicester.”
Leicester’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, said the government had been aware of an outbreak for two weeks and had not shared vital data with the local authority. He told the BBC: “Since then, we’ve been struggling to get information from them [the government] about what data they had, what led them to believe there was a particular problem here, and struggling to get them to keep the level of testing in Leicester.”
Speaking at a press conference later on Monday, Soulsby suggested it had been a struggle to keep testing going in the city, although it had recently been increased.