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‘Whack-a-Mole’ Against Virus Sounds Reasonable, Unless You’re the Mole


LEICESTER, England — Fresh buttercream wastes away in an empty cake shop. Young men slip past the lockdown border to reopened pubs in nearby towns. And neighbors blame neighbors for a new outbreak of the coronavirus that has stalled their return to something resembling normal life.

In Leicester, a city of ramshackle garment factories and multigenerational homes in the heart of England, the imposition of a second lockdown late last month has induced a sort of whiplash among people who were still recovering from the first.

The city of 340,000 in the East Midlands was shuttered as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to play ‘Whack-a-Mole’ with the virus, bringing a mallet down on any areas suffering an outbreak.

But carving a stay-at-home border around one region while others hurry back to pubs and jobs has proved to be a convoluted and divisive step. And it illuminates the difficulties that countries across Europe and Asia will face as they try to battle local flare-ups of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Weeks of delays by the government in giving local officials in England details about test results made it difficult to detect clusters of new infections before they spread.

With sweatshops employing mostly underpaid South Asian immigrant workers operating during lockdown, Leicester was a prime candidate for a second outbreak. Its garment workers were packed together not only in the factories but also at home — confined spaces where the virus can easily spread.

Once known for “clothing the world,” Leicester has struggled as larger manufacturers moved overseas. It recently ranked as the 21st most deprived of more than 300 local authorities in England.

And now, residents complain, it has to shoulder the reputation of becoming England’s first city to be convulsed a second time by the coronavirus.

“The only time people have known how to say ‘Leicester’ is when we won the Premier League and we found a dead king,” said Dharmesh Lakhani, the owner of Bobby’s, an Indian restaurant, on the city’s normally bustling Belgrave Road. The city soccer team won the 2016 championship and archaeologists in 2012 found Richard III’s remains under a parking lot where a 16th century priory once stood.

“Now these are the three highlights,” he said. “Being locked down again attaches a stigma to us.”

In Leicester (pronounced “Lester,” in case anyone was wondering), recriminations are flying over why local officials were not given centrally held data showing a spike in infections sooner.

“We are a very centralized country — probably one of, if not the most, centralized in the democratic world,” Sir Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, said in an interview. “And if it’s all done from the center, they’re missing out on local expertise, and we’re sitting here very frustrated at not being trusted.”

Pouncing on an outbreak depends upon testing and tracking cases down to the level of single office buildings and neighborhoods, a strategy that England has struggled to develop. Chief among its problems has been a network of privately run testing sites that for weeks processed tens of thousands of daily tests, without the government sharing detailed results with local officials. Only testing results from public hospitals were being quickly shared.

Those blind spots made Mr. Johnson’s decision to reopen England seem hasty to some experts. Leicester’s lockdown was triggered by an infection rate of 135 cases per 100,000 people, nearly three times as high as the bar set by Germany. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that the lifting of the national lockdown appeared timed to the easing of the virus in London, and not its more stubborn spread elsewhere.

In an internal report on the outbreak, Leicester officials said the government had denied them testing data in recent months on the grounds that “it hadn’t been cleaned.” Government officials have said the data processing had not yet been automated, causing delays.

When Leicester was given citywide test results on June 1 showing an elevated number of new cases, city officials were alarmed.

But on a call in the following days with Leicester’s public health director, national health officials denied anything was amiss, the report said. The city’s public health director “was told it was probably ‘a small numbers issue’ and may well go down again in the following week’s data release,” the report said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said, “At no point did the department or Public Health England seek to downplay the situation in Leicester. In fact, our close monitoring of the outbreak allowed us to take early action, including through extra testing capacity and providing additional data analysis.”

Extra testing was not introduced until June 20, Leicester officials said, shortly after the government publicly confirmed an outbreak. With government health officials struggling to pinpoint the hotspot, and deliberating whether to delay future reopenings or ask everyone to stay at home, it took until June 29 for a lockdown to be announced.

Even now, Leicester officials said, they were being notified of positive results only in local areas, and not the overall number of tests, preventing them from determining the rate of new infections. The data also have missing or incorrect information about people’s workplaces — as with a reputed eight-year-old health care worker — making it difficult to trace the spread.

Government officials have said that Leicester was slow to complete data security forms required to access testing information. The mayor also publicly questioned the lockdown shortly before it was announced, saying that he was “deeply skeptical” of what it would achieve.

On a recent gloomy day, with rain threatening from a leaden sky and shops sitting empty behind closure notices, the city looked ghostly. Pubs and restaurants once poised to open along with those elsewhere in England were shuttered, and boxes of supplies sat stacked on tables.

At Sugar and Ice, a cake shop that had reopened in mid-June only to partly close again because of the lockdown, Debbie Bass, the owner, tallied her looming losses. Forty kilograms of buttercream was nearing its expiration date. So was £200, or $250, of sponge cake bases.

Three cake orders had already been postponed or canceled. And an employee whom Ms. Bass had rehired off furlough had been sent home.

“Now she’s back on furlough and we go through it all over again,” Ms. Bass said. “It’s rather a waste of money and a waste of time.”

Adding to the stress for residents was confusion over the lockdown borders. Even the mayor said on the day the lockdown started that he did not know where it applied.

“Sitting up all night refreshing social media to see if we had any updates wasn’t very good,” Ms. Bass said.

With caution tape still fluttering from the bars of playground equipment, some of the heaviest activity in Leicester was centered last week in the garment factories that analysts fear could have seeded the outbreak.

The so-called dark factories — housed in the shells of old buildings, their windows often papered over inside — pay workers as little as £3.50, or $4.40, an hour, a fraction of the national living wage.

Their biggest buyers are cheap online retailers like Boohoo, which thrived in the pandemic by switching to leisure wear. The factories — exempt, like other manufacturers, from lockdown — forced workers to show up sick, workers told an advocacy group, Labour Behind the Label. At one 80-person factory, a fifth of the staff had the virus.

Labor unions have criticized the government’s Health and Safety Executive, which had been promised an extra £14 million to enforce workplace safety during the pandemic, for not inspecting factories and other facilities more aggressively.

“It’s almost like an open secret,” said Dominique Muller of Labour Behind the Label, referring to the longstanding labor abuses. “But there hasn’t been any coherent response from the government.”

The high rate of infection in nearby South Asian neighborhoods fed a false perception that nonwhite residents were to blame for the outbreak, spawning racist remarks online. For a city with a long history of immigrant arrivals, the racism has stung.

“People are labeling the whole Asian community,” said Priti Raichura, who runs a wedding business in the city. “I have seen lots of racist comments.”

Like many places walloped by the coronavirus, Leicester is a deeply unequal city: The gap in life expectancy between the healthiest and sickest neighborhoods is more than six years. The prevalence of diabetes is among the highest in England and rising.

But rather than supply public health teams and local doctors with infection data they could have used to warn patients, the government left them in the dark, said Professor Kamlesh Khunti of the University of Leicester, who is also a general practitioner.

“We know the family structures better than most,” he said. “Like others, we suffered all these months, but now we have to wait before we can get back to something the rest of the country already has, which seems unfair.”