London (AFP) – The British government on Monday ordered schools and non-essential shops in the central English city of Leicester to close after a localised outbreak of coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said nationwide moves to ease a three-month lockdown would be reversed in Leicester, where the infection rate is three times as high as the next worst-affected city.
“Unfortunately while cases in most parts of the country have fallen since the peak, in Leicester they’ve continued to rise,” he told parliament after a meeting with local leaders.
Schools, which only re-opened for some children on June 1, would close from Thursday and shops that only opened two weeks ago would be shuttered from Tuesday, he said.
Plans to reopen pubs, restaurants and cultural sites on July 4 would be scrapped in Leicester — although they will go ahead elsewhere in England — and locals are now being advised against all but essential travel.
“We must control this virus. We must keep people safe,” Hancock said.
“These actions are profoundly in the national interest too. Because it’s in everyone’s interest that we control the virus as locally as possible.
“Local action like this an important tool in our armoury to deal with outbreaks while we get the country back on our feet.”
Britain has suffered more deaths from the coronavirus than any other country in Europe, recording at least 43,000 deaths. It also faces the prospect of a deep recession as a result of the shutdown called to try slow the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson began easing nationwide stay-at-home orders last month but, in the face of accusations that he is moving too fast, has vowed to clamp down on any localised outbreaks.
In what he described as his “whack-a-mole strategy”, “where you have a local flare up you’ve got to empower local authorities to crack down on it properly,” he told Times Radio in an interview.
Leicester, a city of around 340,000 people, has recorded 866 new cases of coronavirus in the past two weeks — a total of 3,000 since the outbreak began in March, local authorities say.
“Leicester accounts for around 10 percent of all positive case in the country over the past week,” with between six and 10 people admitted to hospital every day, Hancock said.
Leicester’s elected mayor, Peter Soulsby, had previously argued against extending the lockdown in his city, suggesting the higher numbers were in part due to higher levels of testing.