Leicester has become the first city in Britain to be plunged back into lockdown after public health officials expressed alarm at a significant rise in Covid-19 cases.
Shops that only reopened on June 15 have been ordered to close from today, schools will be shut from Thursday to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, pubs and restaurants will remain shut on July 4 and a proposed relaxation of shielding on July 6 has been cancelled.
The lockdown will cover the whole of one of Britain’s biggest cities as well as the “local conurbation” and is expected to remain in place until at least mid-July. It will be reviewed in two weeks’ time.
Announcing the decision in Parliament on Monday night Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said that from Tuesday: “We recommend against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester.”
Mr Hancock said the Government had no choice but to reverse the latest easements - and postpone the ones due this weekend - because the seven-day infection rate in Leicester is three times higher than the next highest city and Leicester now accounts for around 10 per cent of all new infections in the country.
The decision, which was signed off by Boris Johnson on Monday night, will cause concern in Downing Street that localised lockdowns - with the damaging economic impact they entail - could become the new normal as part of its so-called "whack-a-mole" strategy to fight the virus.
It also comes on the day that Mr Johnson had been hoping to turn the nation's attention to the post-Covid future with a major speech in the West Midlands setting out a "New Deal" for Britain.
The Leicester lockdown was such a sensitive decision for the Government that the announcement was repeatedly postponed on Monday as a succession of meetings were held involving Cabinet ministers and local officials. A statement due to be given to MPs by Mr Hancock was pushed back from mid-afternoon to 9pm.
This map shows some of the areas affected by the spike in new cases.
Mr Hancock said: "I know that this is a worrying time for people living in Leicester and I want you to know you have our full support.
"We do not take these decisions lightly but with the interests of the people of Leicester in our hearts."
He said the lockdown would cover the city as well as the wider conurbation including Oadby, Birstall and Glenfield, but the precise boundaries were still being worked on by ministers in conjunction with local authorities.
Mr Hancock said the actions were “profoundly in the national interest”, adding that: “We said we would do whatever it takes to defeat this virus.”
The city’s mayor,? Sir Peter Soulsby,? said the Government had "gone further than we anticipated they might” and said he had “scepticism about the figures that led them to this”.
He said ministers “are entirely convinced that the level of the transmission of the disease in Leicester is at a higher level than I think the figures show”.
He also suggested Leicester was being used as a test-bed for local lockdowns because: “They are clearly determined to start with the maximum, as it were, to see how it works and then perhaps to use the learning from this in other areas I have no doubt will follow.”
However, Government insiders told The Telegraph that data coming out of the city in recent days showed significantly higher levels of positive coronavirus tests compared with?other areas of the UK.
The Telegraph understands that the proportion of tests returning positive has been as high as 10 per cent, significantly up on the UK average of just two per cent.
Leicester City Council said there had been 944 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past two weeks. It amounts to around 30 per cent of all positive tests in the city since the start of the pandemic.
In a virtual meeting with the city’s leadership, Mr Hancock, together with Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam, decided pubs, restaurants and bars should remain closed until the number of positive cases begins to decline. The council is also reviewing its own plans to extend the opening of libraries, museums and children’s centres.
A significant increase in local testing in recent days failed to make a big difference to infections, and walk-in testing centres will now open to increase Leicester’s capacity for test and trace.
Although officials are not believed to have pinpointed the source of the outbreak, it is thought that food processing centres and large gatherings outside takeaway restaurants may be helping to spread the virus.
Leicester, which is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the UK, also has a higher than average number of households with high occupancy levels due to multiple generations living under the same roof, aiding the spread of the virus.
The Telegraph understands that ministers and local officials expressed concern that opting for a more localised lockdown in the worst-affected parts of Leicester could cause tensions between different communities.
One source suggested that if ethnic minority groups were concentrated in virus hotspots they would be wrongly blamed for the reimposition of measures.
Mr Johnson said the Government remained "concerned about Leicester", adding: “I want to stress to people that we are not out of the woods yet.”
He said a "whack-a-mole" strategy to contain local outbreaks had worked in Weston-super-Mare and where there had been outbreaks around GP surgeries in London. "That's the same approach that we will bring to bear in Leicester as well," he said.
Mr Hancock said: "Local action like this is an important tool in our armoury to deal with outbreaks while we get the country back on its feet. We said we'd do whatever it takes to defeat this virus. We said that local action would be an increasingly important part of our plan. The virus thrives on social contact and we know that reducing social contact helps limit its spread."
He said legislation would be brought forward "very shortly" to reimpose and enforce the lockdown measures in Leicester that were lifted in England on June 15.
Mr Hancock stopped short of imposing a ban on travel to and from Leicester but has suggested in the past that the Government has the powers to carry out such radical measures if they are deemed necessary.