What lessons can we learn from Hull in managing Covid-19 as we leave lockdown?
Hull City Centre during the second national lockdown in England | PA Images
Areas with high rates of insecure, low paid employment could continue to see higher rates of Covid unless the proper funding is put in place to support self-isolation and mass testing
Although coronavirus restrictions end today in England, December has not marked the return to freedom that many in the country had hoped for when the second national lockdown began on 4 November.
The country-wide lockdown has been replaced by a strengthened tier system, which aims to balance public health risks against the socioeconomic consequences of forced business closures. With 41.5% of the population now living under Tier 3, most of which are in the north of the country, the debate around inter-regional fairness has swung back into life.
Following high-profile failed discussions with Manchester back in October, this time around the government have made clear that tier designations are “not up for negotiation”, declaring that any battles over funding consequences were “bad for public health”. For some of the most deprived parts of the UK, however, ineffective or inadequate funding may be at the heart of consistently higher infection rates.
One such city is Kingston upon Hull, which experienced the highest coronavirus rate in England for the majority of the second lockdown – at one point nearly tripling the country’s average.
On 13 November, Cllr Stephen Brady of Hull City Council wrote to Boris Johnson calling for support, stating that he would not “let Hull be forgotten”. Hull’s three Labour MPs, Diana Johnson, Emma Hardy and Karl Turner, soon thereafter asked Matt Hancock for military assistance to expediate the distribution of additional testing in a joint letter.
An emergency meeting was finally organised with city leaders, during which it was agreed that Hull would be sent 10,000 lateral flow tests and would be provided an additional £2m for Hull City Council. Yet, over two weeks later, the promised tests had failed to materialise and Johnson was forced to reiterate her pleas to the government during Prime Minister’s Questions. Hull, it appeared, risked being forgotten again.
In Hull, and in many areas just like it, there has been fear, confusion and frustration as to why Covid-19 rates have remained relatively high, particularly when the majority of Hull’s inhabitants had been trying to abide by the rules and regulation throughout the second lockdown, according to Cllr Brady.
Evidence provided during the ‘Coronavirus: Lessons learnt’ inquiry, which is currently being held jointly by the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Select Committees, suggests that one answer to this might lie in the additional funding provided to help deprived areas bring down Covid-19 rates.
One local director for public health, Professor Dominic Harrison, noted how economic challenges had been a major barrier for compliance in Blackburn with Darwen. For people on zero-hour contracts, self-isolation payments provided by government had not been sufficient to cover their usual incomes, forcing individuals to work despite being asked to isolate, he explained.
This meant that some people with Covid-19 were also reluctant to give the full list of their contacts to Test and Trace, in fear of plunging loved-ones into the same morally and financially perilous situation.
Contrastingly, in Germany and New York City, witnesses attributed the success of test, trace and isolate schemes in part to the financial support provided to those quarantining.
All of this points to the suggestion that in areas where the population cannot effectively stay at home, due to the nature of work and personal circumstances, infection rates will remain higher for longer, resulting in greater health, social and economic consequences. Any battles over funding will therefore remain central to driving infection rates down, even if tier designation is not up for negotiation.
It has been promised that all areas under Tier 3 restrictions will be provided rapid community testing with military support, now that national lockdown has ended. While this has proven successful in Liverpool, the next challenge for government will be how to manage the logistical challenge of rolling it out across all Tier 3 regions, all the while battling a bubbling backbench backlash over tier designations and funding.
Alexandra Ming is Dods Political Consultant for health and equalities