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Lessons from Leicester

Local leaders must be empowered to tackle local Covid-19 outbreaks, argues Rory Palmer.

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Opinion

In his speech to the Local Government Association Labour group this week, Keir Starmer was absolutely right to commit to ending the ‘over-centralisation of power and resources in Westminster’. A renewed vision for devolution and empowered local government should be Labour’s natural direction of travel. This week’s events in relation to the ‘Leicester lockdown’ highlight why.

The Leicester lockdown has shown Whitehall’s worst instincts to micromanage,disregarding the insight and knowledge of local leaders. Earlier this week health secretary Matt Hancock announced an extension of Covid-19 restrictions for the Leicester area, in response to a worrying increase of cases.

This official announcement came 11 days after Hancock had first referenced concern at Leicester’s worrying case trajectory. It was then a further 24 hours before official guidance on the precise nature of the lockdown restrictions for Leicester residents was published and at the time of writing the statutory instrument needed to formalise enforcement is yet to be approved.

There is a strong consensus, drawing on international comparisons, that the government was too slow in initiating national lockdown. The Leicester situation this week shows clumsiness and drift in the government’s approach to local lockdowns. This is a failure of planning given it was back on 11 May that the prime minister set out his ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, outlining that the future Covid-19 response would centre on tackling local outbreaks as and where they emerged. Interestingly, SAGE was discussing possible London-specific restrictions at a meeting on 17/18 March suggesting the notion of local lockdowns has long been a feature of Whitehall’s thinking.

The apparent lack of strategy for activating local lockdowns represents one failure. The second and related failure evidenced this week has been the government’s reluctance to properly engage and involve local leaders.

Elected mayors, council leaders, directors of public health and wider local system leaders are best placed to lead and deliver local plans and responses to local Covid-19 outbreaks. Local leaders can draw on authentic and deep knowledge of their areas to guide agile, localised strategies.

Over the past week or so we have seen Leicester’s elected city mayor express real and understandable frustration at the slow sharing of vital coronavirus testing information. This delay in providing test data – which is the critical golden thread in understanding the nature of disease outbreaks – meant the local public health team in Leicester were working with one hand tied behind their backs.

On testing, there is now a double scandal requiring urgent inquiry and explanation. Not only have local public health teams faced unacceptable delays in seeing the data for their areas, but the national Covid tracker of published data was not including Pillar 2 (community) test results, leading to wide discrepancies in understanding the full picture. In Leicester’s case, Pillar 2 data amounts to 90 per cent of cases as Starmer highlighted at  prime minister’s questions this week.

This problem in sharing local testing data reflects a wider heavy centralisation and lack of flexibility in the government’s approach. It is the same mindset that failed to engage local public health leaders in designing the test and trace system, which was absurd given the crucial importance of local knowledge to effective contact tracing systems.

A less centralised approach would have properly understood that sharing local testing data in real time with local authorities would have given a critical head start in getting on top of localised outbreaks. It should not have taken weeks for local test data to be provided to Leicester’s public health team, just in the same way it shouldn’t have taken demands from mayors to secure publication of regionalised ‘R’ rates.

This lack of localism in the government’s approach is deeply worrying given the strategy to lift national restrictions and adopt local measures where and when needed. It is likely that this reluctance to embed localism in the Covid response comes from Whitehall’s instinctive desire to centralise but it also appears to be a deliberate policy decision. As the Leicester experience shows, that is a serious mistake.

It is not possible to micromanage outbreaks from SW1. These past few days in Leicester have exposed disconnect, inflexibility and lack of foresight in the government’s approach to managing local Covid outbreaks. That needs remedying urgently ahead of possible local lockdowns in other places. Local measures to tackle this terrible virus need to be taken in partnership with local areas and not be something done to local areas.

Of course there needs to be a strong national response to a global pandemic, but that shouldn’t mean failing to empower local leaders and systems to tackle local outbreaks. Local systems will be able to show much more agility in response to local outbreaks than the national system, but only if they are empowered and meaningfully supported to do so.

There needs to be a transparent policy framework for local lockdowns, real-time sharing of local testing data and meaningful engagement and partnership with local government leaders. These are three key elements that should shape a coherent, robust and agile response to local outbreaks, built on a genuine sense of trust in local leaders and systems. Local authorities also need proper funding to address local outbreaks, to lead the Covid recovery and to fund the emergency measures taken to date, which now amount to a £10bn black hole in local government finances.

The Leicester lockdown again shows the UK’s over-centralisation to be a weakness. It demonstrates why there needs to be a complete change of mindset in Whitehall with a recognition that local leaders need to be empowered with new powers and resources. That longer term rebalancing from Whitehall to local leaders is something Labour must champion and develop in detail. More urgently, there needs to be an immediate resetting of the relationship between Whitehall and local systems in relation to the Covid-19 response. Sadly, Leicester won’t be the last place to see a need for more stringent, localised Covid-19 measures. The learning points for government are obvious and important: embrace a more localist approach quickly to strengthen the national response.

Rory Palmer

Rory Palmer was Leicester’s deputy city mayor (2011-2017) and chaired the city’s Health & Wellbeing Board. From 2017-2020 he was a Member of the European Parliament. He is a member of the Fabian Society’s Executive Committee.

@Rory_Palmer

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