Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.
As I sit down to write this week’s column I hope that you will excuse it’s slightly erratic nature and its stream of consciousness tone. Forgive me.
As a Leicestershire MP, the last 48 hours have been taken over by the news of the Government’s local lockdown of Leicester and, at first, considering the approach which should be taken should any of my own Bosworth constituency be included in the lockdown area; and subsequently what steps we may have to take locally now we know that we are not.
Over the weekend, rumours started circulating in the media that ‘Leicester’ might become subject to the first localised lockdown since the imposition of Coronavirus legislation. There is a cluster of outbreaks – which must be taken seriously.
Like many cities, ‘Leicester’ is quite difficult to accurately define. Did rumours relate solely to the local government area that is the ‘City of Leicester’, or could it include the suburbs which stretch out towards the rural areas which are covered by Leicestershire County Council’s jurisdiction, and of course the constituencies of our seven Conservative MPs?
I set out on Monday morning to do my due diligence by speaking with regional public health leads, our chief constable and the chair of our local resilience forum, to get the actual facts on the ground.
During the day, it became increasing clear that a local lockdown would be imposed imminently, and I was invited to a Zoom call with other Leicestershire MPs, the elected Mayor of Leicester, the Leader of the County Council, Dido Harding, senior leaders in Public Health England and Nadine Dorries, the Health Minister.
During the course of that conversation, it became quickly apparent that the data is worrying enough in Leicester to make a local lockdown was inevitable; with an R rate stubbornly stuck at one, it was clear that, unless something was done now, this outbreak could get considerably out of hand…and quickly. To be safe, lockdown would include parts of the county – potentially including my own constituency.
Although incidents of Coronavirus are showing a marked national trend downwards, it is obvious that this isn’t the case in parts of Leicester. Nationally, for every 100 people tested for Covid-19 – that is those displaying symptoms – two receive positive tests; in Leicester, that figure increases to ten.
Leicester now accounts for 10 per cent of Covid-19 admissions nationally and, crucially, the trend is not downwards.
Clearly, it is important that we understand why the trends in Leicester are so different from the national ones. The health specialists were in agreement that it is not due to the national release of lockdown (otherwise you would expect hot spots popping up all across the country), so something else must be going on.
At this point, the uptick appears multifactorial, and plenty of work is going on to establish categorically what these factors are, but right now our focus is much more about practicalities and what to do.
How do we guarantee health safety, effective enforcement of lockdown, protecting businesses and support for livelihoods? How do we communicate all of this to the public, preventing spread and make best use of shared working?
Questions like these all immediately sprung to mind, and were evidently shared by all fellow MPs on the call.
Post-meeting, it was straight onto a statement from the Health Secretary, and then my first step was to speak with members of my team with a plan, followed by courtesy calls to councillors whose wards and divisions were likely to be affected and local leaders.
I’m very conscious that an MP never works on their own, and I very much rely on my team and local activists. I said in my maiden speech that healthcare taught me that “empowering those who can and helping those who can’t” is critical; this situation ably demonstrated this again.
In the wake of the Secretary of State’s statement, as you might expect, calls continued well into the night.
Yesterday morning started with a very early meeting with the Health Minister and Leicestershire MPs to digest the news, update and then talk about practicalities.
As Tuesday progressed, further questions come to forefront.
With worried residents, particularly those living in the city commuter belt, it would have been preferable if a map of the lockdown area had been produced far quicker than it actually was. There are many questions about how we can prevent those living in the lockdown area from visiting areas, including my own, where restrictions are being lifted this weekend.
Government was clear it was for local decision makers to decide the extent of the boundary, given that they are best placed to know natural geography, and how communities function in real life not just on a map. (The map is not the territory coming through here from last week!)
Ultimately, I see my role as being that of an honest broker in a fluid situation. I’m determined not to put information out because I want to be first with the news, but rather believe it is best to wait until updates are properly verified.
Instead, what are the worries of my constituents both regarding their safety and their livelihoods? My job is to do my best to secure both.
Over the course of yesterday, I had further meetings and calls with officials from the Department of Health, Home Office, Treasury and local leaders from the police, council and LRF, to name but a few.
Like any emergency situation faced, you want to deliver clear, accurate information, even if that maybe no further news, that is an imperative.
The situation reminds me of my early days as an A&E doctor. The relatives of a very sick patient will always want updates quickly, yet medical uncertainty about how the patient will respond is difficult, added to which the demands of my bosses might be altogether different; but at the end of the day you can lay out what you know, what you are doing and why, and how you expect the poorly person to respond.
The outbreak in Leicester city is no different….now we have two weeks to watch for signs of response, and I will continue to be communicating them to my constituents, working with all the teams involved to get the best outcome; a safe time to return the easing of lockdown.