The sharp increase of coronavirus cases in the east London borough of Newham, which recorded the worst mortality rate in England and Wales in May, has left residents with a terrible sense of deja vu.
Cases were levelling off before England went into national lockdown and the council had hoped they would soon start to fall, but there was a sharp rise instead. The borough recorded 307 cases per 100,000 people for the most recent week of complete data.
“It makes me want to cry,” said 72-year-old Viv Archer, manager of Newham Bookshop, who was particularly frustrated by residents not wearing masks and socially distancing. “I just think people don’t think they’re affected.”
On Monday, the government announced it would be placing London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire in tier 3 restrictions. It means 61% of England’s population – around 34 million people – will be living under the harshest coronavirus measures.
They require all hospitality venues to close, except to offer deliveries. Claudio Miccio, owner of Kotch!, an Italian pizza place and bar that opened in Stratford last year, said the change would force it to furlough some of its staff again. He said switching to takeaway-only would be unviable for a business such as his in the long-term.
“I don’t think that for businesses which were not designed for delivery, this is a long-term strategy. I don’t think it’s sustainable,” Miccio said. “When people come to a restaurant, they come for the music, they come for the customer service, they’re able to enjoy the restaurant and because of that, they’ll be willing to spend a bit more.”
Downing Street’s confirmation that it would still allow the Christmas relaxation of rules to go ahead was met with anger and frustration by some residents, with Archer describing it as deeply “irresponsible”.
Jason Strelitz, the director of public health in Newham, said: “The rules for household mixing indoors over the Christmas period is just not right. There’s going to be consequences. We are actively encouraging people not to do that unless they absolutely need to.”
The local mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, has urged residents, including those without any symptoms, to use the new mobile testing sites. Strelitz said the council wanted to target those tests at people at higher risk. “We are reaching out to carers and to people of working age living in multigenerational households to offer regular twice-a-week tests,” he said, “so that they can be on top of their risk and manage it as best as they can.”
Nirmal Saggu, 45, a Newham resident and co-founder of Food4All, a charity serving hundreds of meals a week to rough sleepers and the homeless in east London and the City, said the rise in cases was “inevitable” after easing of restrictions, because Newham is densely populated and many residents live in multigenerational households.
Seventy-eight per cent of residents in the borough are from minority ethnic communities, which has been reported as a risk factor for the coronavirus.
Tahir Mirza, the chair of the local Labour party in East Ham, said he had been inundated with calls from scared parents worried about sending their children to school and what the new restrictions mean. He said there were particular issues of passing information in different languages quickly to different community groups. “We haven’t learned any lessons at all. We always act at the last moment,” he said.
The worsening public health situation comes amid a deep economic crisis. Nearly 70,000 Newham residents had been on furlough at some point during the pandemic, and over 20,000 were currently claiming unemployment-related benefits either because they were out of work, or they were facing economic hardship due to low hours or low income, the council said. This is close to half the working-age population, the council added.
Newham Mutual Aid group, which formed in the beginning of the pandemic to support vulnerable residents, has gone on to create the Newham Solidarity Fund to support neighbours facing financial hardship. Caroline Rosalie Brouard, 33, a local resident and one of the organisers behind the mutual aid group, said the fund was currently giving out £700 a month.
She said the government had mismanaged the pandemic. “And no matter how good the community comes together, people are still dying in their thousands and those deaths were largely preventable. It’s really tragic. I hope that people can support one another as best they can through this really difficult time.”