Covid-19: Is Luton the 'way forward' in the coronavirus battle?

By Orla Moore & Alex Pope
BBC News Online

  • Published
Rufaro in Luton
Image caption,
Rufaro Mukanya said she felt safe in Luton

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the way Luton reacted to coronavirus restrictions was the "way forward for the entire country". But what do people in the town think?

Back in July, Luton found itself singled out for different treatment to most of England.

While gyms and leisure centres reopened elsewhere, they remained closed in the town as it was declared as an area of intervention amid concern over rising cases of Covid-19.

Just this week, as cases start to rise again, a venue was closed down and the manager fined £10,000 for hosting a wedding attended by 100 people.

Image source, South Beds News Agency
Image caption,
The wedding at the Grand Park Hall in Luton was a "flagrant disregard of the rules", police said

But on Wednesday, Luton found itself being singled out again - this time for praise - in an exchange between the prime minister and leader of the opposition.

During Prime Minster's Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked: "In recent months, 48 areas in England have gone into local restrictions but only one has ever come out - that's Luton. Why does the prime minster think that is?"

Mr Johnson replied: "The reason I think for the success of Luton is that local people pulled together to depress the virus, to follow the guidance and that is the way forward for the entire country."

He was speaking 24 hours before Luton found itself named as an "area of concern" by the Department of Health and Social Care, meaning councils have the power to take action to reduce a rise in cases.

Image caption,
Cases have started to rise again in Luton, alongside many parts of the UK

Luton Borough Council welcomed Mr Johnson's comments as "great recognition".

"Our residents have been fantastic and have sacrificed so much to protect each other," said a spokesman.

"But we ask that everyone remains vigilant and follows the guidance as we see another worrying surge in this awful virus."

Mohammed Munir, who runs the Haji and Sons mini-supermarket in the town's Bury Park. was surprised at what the prime minister said.

Image caption,
Mohammed Munir (left) was surprised to hear that Luton was being praised

"I was gobsmacked at that," he said.

"We feel things are pretty bad at the moment here. Too many people are also attending venues.

"I was surprised about the wedding venue getting fined but it's not the only one.

"The situation doesn't look any better than it was. I don't think we should be in line for praise. We need to do more to curb the effect of Covid-19."

Image caption,
The council visits businesses daily to ensure guidelines are followed

Luton has a population of about 214,100 and a rich industrial heritage in car manufacturing and hat-making.

The bustling Bury Park area, close to the football ground in Kenilworth Road, is an ethnic hub of colourful market stalls and eateries in the shadow of the town's Central Mosque.

Usman Ayub, 33, who works at his family butchers, Luton Halal, said he felt people in the town were "listening" to warnings over coronavirus.

Image caption,
Usman Ayub: "Try your best, wear your masks and keep safe"

"I heard the prime minister blowing a lot of praise on the people of Luton, but the councillors here need a special mention," he said.

"They visit us every day making sure guidelines are being strictly followed - if they don't push us, we'd get lazy.

"But people are listening - and a lot more are wearing masks compared to the initial lockdown in March.

"We can't let standards drop. Try your best, wear a mask, wash your hands and keep safe - it really is that easy.

"If we can ride out the winter, we'll have a good summer."

Analysis: By Daniel Wainwright, BBC England Data Unit

In July, Luton's gyms and leisure centres were stopped from opening along with the rest of England because its new coronavirus case rate at the time - just under 28 per 100,000 in a week - was higher than most other areas of the country.

The restrictions - under what the government calls an "area of intervention" - were relaxed a few weeks later, although the area continued to be on Public Health England's watchlist for some weeks.

Cases in Luton have increased recently, along with many other areas. The town had the highest rate of new coronavirus cases in the East of England region - 57 per 100,000 population in the week to 27 September, but was far below parts of the North West, where rates in some areas were in excess of 200 or even 300 per 100,000.

In the week to 27 September, 122 new cases were recorded in Luton - about 17 a day - up from 108 the week before.

On a grey Thursday morning, most shoppers and businesses in the town seemed to be adhering to the guidelines.

Rufaro Mukanya, 39, wears a visor all the time when she is out and about in Luton.

"I started wearing it more when they said things were going back to how they were," she said.

"I only take it off when I go home - or to get fresh air when it steams up. It's best to keep it on.

"What Boris said did make me feel safe - it's reassuring - but it's good to know that we're on a level that's not so scary."

Image caption,
Khalid Han: "Following the rules works for me and my customers"

Khalid Han, 29, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall, had a different perspective.

"Some are following the rules - some are not," he said.

"Maybe Luton will go back into lockdown but, to be honest, it's better for health and safety reasons. It's a serious matter."

Image caption,
Collinson House care home has 29 residents and specialises in dementia care

For Laura Gibney, the manager of Collinson House care home in Dunstable Road, lockdown never really went away.

There have been no recorded deaths from Covid-19 at the home.

"Our priority is to make everyone safe - no-one went out unless they had to, we used full protection and hand washing - we were extra cautious all the time. We still are," she said.

"We allow window visits only, or video and telephone calls.

"I think the people of Luton just listened and followed the rules - they know how serious this is."

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