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Focussing the attention of the public on Leicester is potentially fraught with problems

By Paul Kelly
30 June 2020

By Paul Kelly, Managing Partner

“Why do you want to live in Leicester?”

Back in the early 1980s when, I was considering going to university in the city this was the question my friends all asked. Most of them had never heard of it.

My stock response was I liked both the university and the city from my first visit there. But their point was well made as Leicester was not famous for anything other than the Leicester Tigers rugby club and in truth, I had no clue about them either!

Since then the city has consistently tried to garner some fame for itself so that now most people will know something about it.  Gary Lineker is a famous son of the city, local crisp maker Walkers is now a top brand, King Richard III was found buried under a council car park and is now entombed in the cathedral and Leicester City went on to win the Premier League. In recent times Leicester has been front page news for all the right reasons.

The headlines the city is getting now are not so welcome as it has become the subject of the first localized lockdown due to a spike in the number of COVID19 infections. Leicester is clearly bristling under the resulting public attention and all stakeholders involved with this will need to choose their words very carefully moving forward.

I cannot comment on whether the decision to impose the localized lock down is justified but I can see that it could raise many more questions than there are currently answers for. Equally there are as many potential pitfalls out there for communicators to fall into with ill-considered comments or messages that are not thought through.

In situations like these surely the key is to establish and agree the basic facts before public announcements are made? Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour mayor of Leicester, was arguing on national radio last night that he did not know why the city had been singled out and was questioning the data behind the decision. By lunchtime today he seemed to have changed his mind. But the confusion bought about by the apparent lack of agreement on the core details between national and local government has clearly angered and frustrated many people on the ground. Especially when it seems that it is appropriate to hold a race meeting, albeit behind closed doors, at the city racecourse from today.

There is also the small matter of children and their roll in spreading the virus. Many schools are re-opening in England on the understanding that children are less susceptible to the virus and are not active agents in spreading it. But part of the rationale for the lockdown of Leicester is the spike in virus infections amongst children which has meant the immediate closure of schools in the city. It is a worrying development and as such will be occupying the minds of many parents and teachers, including my wife, who have been told it is OK to return to work with only minimal PPE.

Finally, Leicester was and is a proudly multi cultural city. The Government has apparently given money to the city council to facilitate communications, in a wide variety of languages, so that the key messages about the lockdown can be easily understood by all. I just hope the same level of sensitivity is applied when they come to pronounce on the source of the recent outbreak.

Nobody should pretend that communicating around these issues is easy, especially at the speed with which developments happen. But clear and coordinated thinking will surely be needed to avoid the prospect of the wonderful city of Leicester and its people being more famous for this COVID19 outbreak than for anything else in its long history.