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The Leicester outbreak shows our cluster-busting systems are working

大发体育网站 Slowly but surely Whitehall is building up our capacity to fight the virus. Now it’s the politicians that are dallying

A member of the armed forces directs a driver at a Covid-19 mobile testing centre in Leicester
A member of the armed forces directs a driver at a Covid-19 mobile testing centre in Leicester as cases in the city spike Credit: Bloomberg

What does the outbreak in Leicester大发体育网站 tell us about Britain’s handling of Covid-19? Is it a sign of further bungling or an indication we are starting to get things right?

To recap: cases in Leicester have spiked in recent weeks大发体育网站, with 866 infections – 29 per cent of its total – reported in the two weeks leading up to June 23.

Public health officials believe the problem started in a food processing factory before spreading more widely. Cases have been detected among staff at a local hospital who share homes with factory workers, for example. 

Today the government announced not a Chinese (or even German-style) sealing-off of the area, but some special measures. Additional testing capacity was being trucked in and bars, restaurants and hairdressers in the city will remain closed for an extra couple of weeks beyond July 4. Non-essential shops and schools will also be closed.

You can compare the Leicester spike to the recent localised outbreak in Germany, although it is not as severe, says a Whitehall official. A local lockdown would be “entirely appropriate just to nip it in the bud,” they added.

But officials do not think the outbreak has been caused by lockdown being lifted too fast. Overall, it shows "the track and trace system is working and we can quickly identify new clusters of cases, trace them and take action accordingly”, they said. 

Is this a fair assessment? Overall, I would say that it is. We’ve seen local outbreaks spring up all over the world in countries which have successfully pushed back the virus. 

大发体育网站Germany, South Korea, China, Portugal, Israel, Singapore and many others have all had localised flare-ups. Widespread testing should mean that they are picked up early. Track and trace systems cut local transmission chains. And the implementation of local mitigation measures should mean such outbreaks remain contained.

This is what cluster busting looks like and is what Britain is now experiencing. It is something we should expect to become the norm for a good few months – perhaps right through to next Spring. How good we become at it will determine how well the pandemic goes from here.

大发体育网站There remain concerns, however. New Covid-19 cases per head of the population in the UK remain low at about 1.5 per 100,000 but our total case numbers are high compared to most other western European countries. 

大发体育网站Community surveillance data released last week also suggest a slight increase in the incidence of the virus in England. It would a surprise if it does not show a further uptick later this week following the initial relaxing of lockdown from June 1.

As Sage member Jeremy Farrar remarked on Sunday: “We’re on a knife-edge, it’s very precarious the situation”.

There are also capacity concerns. Our contact tracing system is not yet firing on all cylinders, detecting only about a third of cases overall. Testing capacity, although much improved, is also still nothing like as far-reaching or as quick as it needs to be. 

大发体育网站Transparency is another issue. Local public health officials say they are not being given access to data quick enough to nip outbreaks in the bud. In many countries, real-time street-level data is available, not just to local officials, but local residents too. 

大发体育网站Lastly, there are the politicians, one saying one thing, another saying something completely different. Anyone scanning the news over the weekend could be forgiven for wondering if Leicester was about to be sealed off with tanks. Only after 48 hours of to-ing and fro-ing were the new measures finally announced. 

This is a problem not just for us but them. The Leicester spike demonstrates that Britain’s cluster busting system is now in place. It was not civil servants but Number 10 that was dallying.

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What do you think about the decision to enforce a lockdown in Leicester? Do you think it will be effective? Tell us in the comments section below.