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It has now been more than five months since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, which engulfed all our cities and towns and put most of their economic and social activity on hold.
Now that the UK seems to have passed its peak, the conversation is mostly focussed on the economic recovery. But it must be informed by an important reminder: that not all urban areas up and down the country are at the same stage of their fight against the virus.
The recent update of the Covid-19 case tracker looks at the development of weekly cases up until mid-July. It shows a large local variation in the virus transmission (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Confirmed cases in the w/c 13th of July
Source: PHE, 2020.
While Leicester has received much of the attention recently, Blackburn is now the city with the highest number of weekly confirmed cases. With about 83 cases per 100,000 population, the city experienced a 66 per cent increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in just a week.
Meanwhile the lockdown in Leicester seems to have brought cases down. Compared to the first week of July, cases in Leicester fell from 97 to 56 per 100,000 population. Although the numbers are still worryingly high (Leicester now ranks second out of all English cities), cases are moving in the right direction at least.
With the exceptions of a few other cities in the Midlands, the highest number of weekly cases can be found in the North West and parts of Yorkshire and the Humber. Conversely, urban areas in the North East and most cities in the south of the country (coastal in particular) have experienced a very limited recent spread of the virus.
Another lesson from these updated figures is not necessarily visible on the map above: a gap is now widening between cities, which can be categorised into four different groups.
First, in a number of urban areas, daily cases are still developing at a relatively high rate, and numbers are still quite high. That is the case of Bradford and Northampton, which had 44 and 26 cases per pop mid-July and rank 3rd and 6th out of all English cities respectively.
In a second group of cities, which comprises places like Crawley, Coventry and Hull, numbers are not as high, but the trajectory is still upward because these places are experiencing a bounce-back (as seen by the shape of the curve here) from a relatively low point earlier in July.
The third category groups cities which are experiencing a sharp, visible drop in the number of weekly cases. That is the case of Leicester, as mentioned above, but also Stoke (73 per cent drop in two weeks) Doncaster (70 per cent) and Derby (50 per cent).
Finally, in the fourth group of cities, cases per population are plateauing at a relatively low level (below 5 per 100,000 population). London, Cambridge, Gloucester or York are among them.
Officials in Blackburn have already argued that they were doing everything they had in their power to avoid enforcing a local lockdown enforcement, despite introducing stricter measures in public spaces.
The Government’s strategy for containing Covid is now very much on acting on local flare ups. So cities in the first and second group in particular will no doubt be monitored closely in the coming weeks.
Evidence from other countries shows that, for now at least, a very strict scrutiny of the virus spread and the identification of local hotspots followed by mass testing has allowed authorities to keep the virus more or less under control. There is- understandably- less appetite for local lockdowns, given their potential harmful effect on local economies, but recent examples from Spain, Germany and France have shown that the option can’t be excluded.
But any further local lockdowns should be dovetailed with extra support for workers and businesses. This support was not offered in Leicester. But as Covid support packages begin to unwind, the Government should bring in help such as extending the Job Retention Scheme or pushing the introduction of the Eat-Out-To-Help-Out discounts to later in the year to any other area that goes back into lockdown.
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