There was an “unusually high” incidence of coronavirus in children in Leicester, the Health Secretary has said.
Matt Hancock told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday that while work was still being done to understand why Leicester had been so badly affected by the outbreak, extra testing had found under-18s testing positive for the virus.
He said that even though children are less likely to get ill from the disease, the decision to shut the city’s schools was made to try to halt further transmissions.
Mr Hancock added: “We have sent in a lot of extra testing into Leicester over the last 10 days or so and one of the things we have found is that there are under-18s who have tested positive and therefore, because children can transmit the disease – even though they are highly unlikely to get ill from the disease – we think the safest thing to do is close the schools.
“The reason I said what I did last night about Leicester is that it is an unusually high incidence in children in Leicester.”
His comments come the day after he announced harsher restrictions were to come into force in Leicester following a surge in the number of coronavirus cases in the city.
The city council said that 944 Covid-19 cases had been reported in the last two weeks.
Public Health England (PHE) said that the proportion of people aged under 19 testing positive for the virus in Leicester had risen from 5% in mid-May to a current level of around 15%.
Mr Hancock also said that the lockdown had been introduced after “targeted action” at factories and workplaces had failed.
He added: “We have been monitoring it incredibly closely, we have put in extra testing units, some of the schools in Leicester were closed already.
“We also went into some of the factories and workplaces where there was an outbreak and we put in place measures.
“These sort of much more targeted measures have worked in other outbreaks.
“So we’ve been taking this highly localised approach, but unfortunately that targeted action wasn’t working in Leicester and that’s why we have taken this much broader measure.”
When asked about possible causes such as poverty, higher ethnic diversity, language difficulties and higher-density housing, Mr Hancock said they were “familiar” to him.
I have today announced local action to tackle the #coronavirus outbreak in Leicester.
It is vital people follow social distancing rules and we tackle this virus.
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) June 29, 2020
He added: “We are still doing the work to understand exactly why the outbreak has been so bad in Leicester.
“But lots of the reasons that you mentioned just then are familiar to me and people will find them intuitive.”
Mr Hancock said that “of course” the Government was looking at similar places but said the outbreak in Leicester was “very significantly worse” than the next worst-hit place.
North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen said that Leicester was a “perfect storm” of a city with younger people who are less likely to comply with lockdown restrictions, a large ethnic minority population, multi-generational households and large food processing and garment industries.
The Conservative MP told BBC Radio 5 Live that the garment industry should have been in lockdown, but workers had carried on.
Mr Bridgen added: “You have got a very large garment industry which should have locked down which my sources are telling me have worked for internet retailers who have been very busy during the lockdown and they have carried on working as well.”
But Leicester mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said he had not had data on whether garment factories in the east of the city had seen “hotspots” for the virus.
He said there was an issue with “illegal manufacturers” in Leicester but added: “There’s nothing we’ve seen that it (the spread of coronavirus) could be associated with them.”
Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said that fingers should not be pointed at local people for not following guidance, or suggesting an area’s diversity was to blame.
She added: “Let’s be clear – the restrictions being re-introduced are not the fault of the local population.
“There is no evidence that their behaviour has been being ‘at odds’ with other parts of England.
“Instead, we need to ask real questions about the adequacy of the UK Government’s response to this whole crisis and whether it has, most immediately, failed the people of Leicester.”
Sir Peter also said that leaders are still trying to learn more about where the virus is in the city: “We do need still to know more about where it is in the community.
“I’ve had lots of speculation and lots of questions about where it is in the community and we have not as yet been able to give satisfactory answers even to ourselves, no matter anybody else, about which parts of the community need the intervention.
“Which neighbourhoods, which communities, indeed which streets.”