LONDON (AP) — Shopkeepers pulled down their shutters, cafe owners paused reopening plans and schools prepared to send children home in the English city of Leicester on Tuesday after the British government imposed a local lockdown to contain a spike in coronavirus cases.
The reintroduction of restrictions on the city of 330,000 people came as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised an infrastructure spending splurge to help the U.K. fix the economic devastation caused by a pandemic that has yet to be vanquished.
People in most of England will be able to drink in pubs, eat in restaurants and get a haircut when the next phase of lockdown-easing measures begins Saturday. But the government has rolled back those freedoms in Leicester, saying that the city 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of London accounted for a tenth of all new coronavirus cases in the country last week.
Shops in Leicester selling non-essential items — most things apart from food and medicines — were ordered to shut down again starting Tuesday, two weeks after they reopened. Schools, which have been gradually welcoming children back, have to send them home on Thursday and residents are being told to make only essential journeys.
The lockdown, which be reviewed after two weeks, came as a blow to small businesses that were looking forward to reopening on Saturday.
“When I said I was going to open in July, all my appointments were fully booked, but now another two weeks —it’s going to be testing,” said barber Cameron Hallam, who had stocked up on hand sanitizer, disposable gowns and face shields for his shop, Cameron’s Cutz.
The U.K.’s official death coronavirus death toll stands at 43,730, the highest in Europe and the third-highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. But the country’s infection rate has been falling and Britain is gradually easing lockdown restrictions imposed in March.
Local officials accused the U.K. government of being too slow to act in Leicester, an industrious, multicultural city with two universities and factories making shoes, clothes and potato chips. They said a rise in local infections had been evident for almost two weeks, but the central government had not shared the data promptly with public health authorities in Leicester.
Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby said “we have not as yet been able to give satisfactory answers” about where the outbreak was concentrated, but that officials were starting to get fuller data to piece together the picture.
“There are some clusters of cases that have been found in some places of work,” he said, amid reports of outbreaks at some of the city’s many garment factories and food-processing plants.
The outbreak has put Britain’s much-criticized response to COVID-19 under more scrutiny. Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Exeter, said that Britain has left lockdown prematurely, at a time when the virus is still spreading and track-and-trace systems are not robust enough.
“We haven’t got the armament or the tools with which we are going to control it and identify it at an early stage,” he told The Associated Press.
Without those tools, what happened in Leicester can happen anywhere, he added.
The city has a large south Asian community who often live in multi-generational households that can transmit the virus between family members. Britain’s ethnic minority communities have been hit especially hard in the pandemic.
But Pankhania said it was too early to know whether the outbreak was linked in this case to race or other factors.
“I don’t think there is anything peculiar about Leicester,″ he said. “Time will tell. But it will happen in any large city with a lot of people and a lot of people circulating.″
The local lockdown is a blow to government hopes of a return to normality. The prime minister thanked the people of Leicester “for their forbearance,” even as he gave a speech brimming with impatience to restart the economy and society.
Johnson won December’s election with a promise to rebalance Britain’s London-dominated economy and revive long-neglected former industrial regions. Those plans were thrown into turmoil by COVID-19, which has hobbled the economy and left Britain facing a deep recession.
The Office for National Statistics said Tuesday that the U.K. economy had contracted by more than first thought between January and March, 2.2% rather than 2%. The period covers only the first week of lockdown.
“It may seem premature to make a speech now about Britain after COVID,” Johnson acknowledged, before doing just that, promising to pump billions into schools, roads, rail and housing. He called the plan a “New Deal,” echoing the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that helped wrench the United States out of the Great Depression.
In a wide-ranging speech that was short on details, Johnson promised that “we will build better and we will build greener but we will also build faster.”
“The virus is out there, still circling like a shark in the water,” Johnson acknowledged.
But Johnson said Britain must use the coronavirus crisis “to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges.”
“COVID has taught us the cost of delay,” he said.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreakand https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak