On a traffic island to the west of Leicester, my adopted city, a small replica of the Statue of Liberty stands and guards our freedoms. A plaque explains that she was not placed there out of pro-American feelings, but as a gesture by the manufacturer of liberty bodices, which once had factories nearby.
I walked past the statue this morning after hearing the news that Leicester would return to local lockdown as the rest of the UK opened up from Saturday. When I got home, I saw a post on Facebook suggesting that outbreaks of coronavirus in the city can be traced to the factories that sustain Leicester’s now diminished rag trade. And the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, has said the garment industry was partially to blame for the outbreak. Small, non-unionised, heavily staffed by non-English speakers: these factories make a good scapegoat, but few of us will ever know the truth about why Leicester became a hotspot for Covid-19. Still, with information in short supply, people invent their own.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been awaiting news of when I’ll be allowed to visit my partner’s house. We live separately; during the lockdown, when we’ve relied on the company of housemates and have been deprived of much contact beyond a Regency-style constitutional walk, we’ve counted the days until home visits are permitted. When the government announced that old freedoms would return from 4 July, we exchanged ecstatic texts.
A few mornings later, I woke to a message from my mum informing me that Leicester might be facing a fresh outbreak of coronavirus cases. “I doubt they’ll sort it out in time,” I replied, “it’s not like there’s been great organisation so far.” Still, I started to keep my eye out for reports. My partner, who works in libraries, mentioned she’d heard talk of a local lockdown. No one seemed to know exactly what this entailed. I stopped planning a celebration for 4 July.
The was more confusion than clarity in the week before the lockdown was announced. One moment the home secretary, Priti Patel, was suggesting that Leicester was definitely facing lockdown, the next our mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, was saying it was the first he’d heard of it. Soulsby reportedly said he’d received an email in the small hours with information about the lockdown, but said he had been unable to access the data to assess the situation himself. I found myself hoping guiltily for official incompetence to save us from more time indoors. Months of bored isolation had to come to an end. Rumours began to swirl about which parts of the city were infected. The north, the east; young people, old. Some places had never closed down – others were about to.
When the first wave of lockdown ended, people no longer walked in defensive, hunched-up shuffles. The streets were quieter than before the lockdown, the meadows emptier of people doing their daily exercise, but people ambled along as though they were no longer at risk. Cyclists started using the roads again. Today on my morning stroll, it felt as though paranoia had set in. Leicester was closing again before it had really opened. I spoke to one shop assistant who said he was waiting to hear from his manager about whether to come to work next week. He had been told nothing about any plans for a local furlough scheme (it has now been confirmed that there will be one). My partner was at work preparing for libraries to be re-opened. They were still waiting for official confirmation this wouldn’t be needed. No one seems to be in charge.
Leicester is poor, in some parts shockingly so. It has a multiethnic population with large groups of people who are at heightened risk from the virus. It has factories that have stayed open and workers who travel to them by bus. We have an inconvenient habit of voting Labour. If anywhere was going to suffer, it would be Leicester. For now, we sit tight in rooms we’ve grown tired of, missing our loved ones and jumping at any news. It can only be a matter of weeks, we tell ourselves. Leicester has always felt left behind. It took coronavirus to make that a matter of fact.
• Rob Palk is the author of Animal Lovers