How the first four months of Leeds’ coronavirus battle unfolded – and the fight still to come | #students | #parents

It began in January, with a few news reports about a new disease in a far off land.

Scenes of Chinese medics in face masks and protective clothing made brief appearances on our social media feeds and TV screens while a reporter droned on about some respiratory infection, but we’d seen it all before with bird flu, swine flu and Ebola.

It was unsettling, but no one in Leeds was panicking about this new disease or events that were unfolding thousands of miles away. Few of us had ever heard of social distancing, PPE or furlough.

A few MPs raised concerns about this coronavirus spreading to the UK in Parliament, but health secretary Matt Hancock said the country was “well prepared” and the risk of contracting the virus remained low.

Within a few short weeks the virus had escaped from the quarantined city of Wuhan in China, made its way across Asia and arrived in Europe.

Some of us took this disease more seriously when we saw it tear through Italy within a matter of weeks and began to wash our hands more frequently (to the tune of happy birthday).

Chinese medical workers in protective suits help transfer patients to a field hospital in Wuhan in February

A few of us were even forced to cancel holidays and school trips, but for most, life went on as normal.

In February, the virus arrived in the UK. Two people, including a University of York student, became the first to test positive for the virus in this country and a month later it reached Leeds.

On March 1, Professor Chris Witty, chief medical officer for England, told us that three people from West Yorkshire had been diagnosed with coronavirus – bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 36.

Two of them were from Leeds and they were infected during a trip to Iran. The third case, from Bradford, was not connected to the other two, and they were infected in Italy.

Coronavirus isolation pods were being set up at hospitals in Leeds, but most people who began to show symptoms were tested in their cars in hospital car parks and then told to drive home.

Keep calm, carry on, wash your hands and self-isolate for 14 days if you start coughing, was the message coming from Westminster.

People were still meeting friends at the pub, packing themselves into crowded buses and trains, shaking hands with strangers, sending their children to school and joining crowds for concerts and sports matches.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted it was “likely” the virus would spread, but Mr Hancock said the NHS “has a full plan for this“ and for most people who catch the virus, the symptoms are “relatively mild”.

But at the same time, the government was also ramping up preparations for a significant outbreak. A war room was set up in Westminster, medical equipment was being stockpiled and legislation was being drawn up to give the authorities extra powers to tackle the virus and restrict the movement of people.

On March 5, the number of confirmed cases reached 116 and a woman in Reading, who was in her 70s and suffering from underlying health conditions, became the first person in the UK to lose their life to the virus.

Suddenly people were paying very close attention to developments in countries such as Italy and Spain, where case numbers had started to soar and governments were imposing draconian lockdown restrictions to try and curb the spread of the virus.

They were also inundated with images of panic-stricken shoppers ransacking supermarket shelves.

Around the region you'll find lots of empty shelves at supermarkets because of the coronavirus panic buying
Panic buying began in March

On March 11, Leeds City Council assured everyone in the city that it was “as well prepared to deal” with an outbreak, as the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and the Prime Minister admitted it was “the worst public health crisis for a generation”.

Two days later, Leeds United fans’ dreams of returning to the Premier League after 16 years were put on hold, when it was announced that professional football would be postponed until further notice.

And on March 17, it was revealed that two coronavirus patients were being treated at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the hospital, said it was “well prepared to care for patients with Covid-19” and assured people that it was still safe to visit the hospital.

Behind the scenes, preparations for a major outbreak were well underway at the city’s hospitals.

All non-urgent surgical procedures were suspended for three months to free up beds and other resources for coronavirus patients and ‘hot and cold wards’ were being set up so anyone who tested positive for the virus could be isolated.

On that same day (March 17) an elderly woman who was being treated in Harrogate, became the first person to die in Yorkshire after contracting the virus.

Later that week, the government ordered all schools to close and a woman, who was in her 80s and had underlying health conditions, became the first coronavirus patient to die in Leeds.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is shown the testing of samples for respiratory viruses by Dr Antony Hale (left) during a visit to the pathology labs at Leeds General Infirmary in March

After her death Julian Hartley, chief executive of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, warned his staff that the number of Covid-19 cases “will escalate quite quickly” and his grim prediction proved to be very accurate.

When the UK death toll reached 335 on March 23, the government decided it was time to take drastic action.

The Prime Minister said people can only leave home to exercise once a day, travel to work when it is “absolutely necessary”, shop for essential items and receive medical treatment or medication.

Public gatherings of more than two people were banned and non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, gyms and museums were shut down.

The roads and high streets were soon empty and an eerie silence gripped the city centre. The only thing that seemed to break that silence was the weekly clap for the NHS heroes.

But lockdown came too late to prevent a devastating outbreak.

A man walks wearing a face mask on Briggate, Leeds city centre, on March 24, 2020 after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus
A man walks wearing a face mask on Briggate, Leeds city centre, on March 24, 2020 after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus

When it was imposed, there were 42 confirmed cases of the virus in Leeds and a week later (March 30) there were 129.

Another seven coronavirus patients died at Leeds hospitals in that week and the first Leeds care home death was been recorded.

While the battle against the virus raged on in hospitals and care homes, thousands of selfish shoppers continued to stuff their trolleys with piles of toilet paper, hand sanitiser and food.

But there were some who decided that it was time to step up and help others.

Within a few days, more than 4,000 volunteers signed up with Voluntary Action Leeds to help vulnerable people during lockdown.

No one knew how long lockdown was going to last, but the government promised an update in three weeks, and many of us were optimistic that it would all be over soon so we could get on with their plans for summer.

Coronavirus cases in Leeds

Public Health England

That’s optimism ebbed away in April, as the number of confirmed cases and deaths soared until the virus reached its peak.

On April 1, there were 192 confirmed cases in Leeds. Within a week that figured doubled and by April 14 it reached 734.

1,175 new cases were diagnosed in Leeds throughout April and according to Office for National Statistic figures the virus claimed the lives of 364 people in the city that month.

A man in a face mask walks along Briggate, Leeds city centre, on March 24, 2020 after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus
A man in a face mask walks along Briggate, Leeds city centre, on March 24

Similar spikes were recorded across Yorkshire and the government scrambled to set up a temporary hospital at Harrogate Convention Centre, so 500 extra beds would be available if other hospitals in the county became overwhelmed.

The government also set up a drive-thru testing centre in Temple Green and 14 others across the country, as the pressure to conduct more tests mounted, but only front-line NHS staff were allowed to book appointments.

People lost parents and grandparents, sons, daughters, friends and colleagues to the virus. Two of them, Khulisani Nkala and Josiane Ekoli, were NHS nurses who had been on the front-line of the battle against the deadly outbreak.

The new restrictions meant that people were unable to visit their loved ones and say goodbye in hospital or given them a proper send-off with a traditional funeral.

Most of us had finally begun to grasp the severity of the situation, but some were reluctant to make any sacrifices.

Police started stopping vehicles to find out why people had ventured out of their homes and fining anyone who was deemed to have made a non-essential journey.

On the final day of April, the Prime Minister, who had spent three nights in intensive care after contracting the virus, announced that the UK was “past the peak” of the virus. But there was no cause for celebration just yet.

In May, the NHS continued to announce three-figure death tolls on a daily basis while case numbers climbed.

Another 438 cases were diagnosed in Leeds during that month and ONS figures show that 241 people died in the city after contracting the virus.

It was also becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic had claimed another casualty – the economy. The Bank of England warned that the UK was heading for the deepest recession in 300 years.

Thousands of businesses had been forced to close and left in the dark for weeks. They didn’t know when or how they could reopen and where they were going to find the money to cover their rent and other expenses when they had no income.

By the end of May, businesses had furloughed 88,200 jobs in Leeds and over 23,500 self-employed workers in the city accessed support from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

While across West Yorkshire, the number of unemployed benefits claimants in West Yorkshire rose by almost 25 per cent in May, to a total of 106,700.

An aerial view of Leeds city centre following the introduction of measures to bring England out of lockdown
An aerial view of Leeds city centre following the introduction of measures to bring England out of lockdown

Leeds City Council also started feeling the pinch.

The Labour-run council has struggled with rising costs and loss of income during the coronavirus lockdown, as it has been forced to suspend business rates payments, cut council tax and close car parks and leisure centres.

It says it will have to make severe cuts to services that thousands of people rely on unless the government helps it cover a £197.6 million funding gap.

The council’s request for funding fell on deaf ears, but government was keen to restart the economy, by reopening businesses and getting people back to work, and get children back to school.

To the dismay of thousands of Leeds teachers and parent, the government announced plans to reopen schools to certain year groups on June 1, although the education secretary later conceded that this wasn’t a fixed deadline.

At the end of May, the Dominic Cummings scandal came and went. Mr Johnson’s government refused to accept that his top advisor had ignored the lockdown rules everyone else was following, and he kept his job without even offering an apology.

It then set about drawing up the ‘roadmap’ for exiting lockdown and reviving the economy, as the number of new cases, hospital admissions and deaths began to fall steadily.

Thousands returned to Leeds city centre on June 15 to queue up for Primark and the other non-essential shops which were allowed to reopen. But the face masks and social distancing rules served as a reminder that life won’t return to normal for some time.

People queue ahead of the opening of Primark in Leeds as non-essential shops in England open their doors to customers for the first time since coronavirus lockdown restrictions were imposed in March
People queue ahead of the opening of Primark in Leeds as non-essential shops in England open their doors to customers for the first time since coronavirus lockdown restrictions were imposed in March

Football also returned to our TV screens and Leeds United’s push for promotion was back on track, even though fans are not allowed to watch the matches at Elland Road.

And the NHS decided to start using Harrogate’s NHS Nightingale Hospital for outpatient radiology appointments, as it has not been called on to treat a single patient with Covid-19.

The government’s coronavirus alert level was then reduced from four to three and lockdown measures were eased further.

It was announced that pubs, restaurants, cinemas and museums will be allowed to open from July 4 and two households can meet indoors and stay overnight, but safety measures will remain in place.

However, Victoria Eaton, Leeds City Council’s director of public health, was quick to remind people that this “is not a case of anything goes” and said no one should drop their guard or abandon the two-metre social distancing rule.

The battle against the virus is far from over and in Leeds, there are now 1,901 confirmed cases.

It has claimed more than 650 lives in the city so far and will take more unless we remain vigilant.




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