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UK govt accused of data bungles as towns fear more lockdowns

LONDON – Opponents accused the British government on Wednesday of putting lives at risk by failing to share information about local coronavirus outbreaks with affected areas.

The government has reimposed a lockdown on the central England city of Leicester after a spike in cases. Several other communities are striving to contain local outbreaks and avoid having to bring back similar restrictions just as much of the country begins to open up.

Leicester, a city of 300,000, has been forced to shut schools, close non-essential shops and bar all but essential travel, days before the rest of England takes further steps out of lockdown with the reopening of restaurants, pubs and hairdressers on Saturday.

Officials in Leicester, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of London, say they weren't given detailed data on the scale and location of local COVID-19 clusters for almost two weeks after the rise in cases was identified, leaving them scrambling to stem the spread of the virus.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the government had publicly mentioned an outbreak in Leicester on June 18 but didn't give local authorities full data for another week, and didn't impose a lockdown until 11 days later.

“There was a lost week while the virus was spreading,” Starmer said in the House of Commons. He demanded a “cast-iron guarantee” that no other authority would be put in the same position.

The government said “postcode-level” data has been available to local officials across the country since last week, though it didn't explain why it had been unavailable earlier.

Officials are trying to pinpoint the seat of the Leicester outbreaks, with attention focused on the city’s garment factories and food-processing plants. Potato-chip maker Walkers, one of the city’s main employers, said 28 members of its 1,400-strong workforce had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The company said the number reflected “the situation in the local community” and coincided with an expansion of testing in the city.

The U.K.’s official coronavirus death toll stands at 43,906 — the highest in Europe and the third-highest in the world after the U.S. and Brazil. But the country’s infection rate has been falling and Britain is gradually easing lockdown restrictions imposed in March.

The pandemic has already taken a heavy economic toll, with the Bank of England estimating the British economy could end the year 20% smaller than it began 2020. Job losses have begun to mount, especially in aviation, retail and hospitality.

Some scientists fear lockdown is being eased too quickly. Britain has seen several recent coronavirus outbreaks at hospitals and meat-processing plants, though all appear to have been contained. Several towns and cities have infection levels markedly higher than the national average, though none as high as Leicester.

The northern England city of Bradford has 69.4 cases per 100,000 population, according to the latest figures, the second highest in England but only half of Leicester’s 140.2 cases per 100,000.

Bradford Council leader Susan Hinchcliff said authorities “continue to work hard with all our partners to prevent infection spreading as no one wants a second lockdown."

“We must all stay vigilant. We don’t want to see a second spike of cases that inevitably would mean more deaths,” she said. “Don’t be conned into thinking it’s all OK now. It’s not.”

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