‘I don’t know if there would be a town to come back to’: Threatened local lockdown would cripple Oldham for years, residents fear

Worries about economic catastrophe and rising community tensions if infection-hit borough has to shut down for second time

Colin Drury
Thursday 13 August 2020 14:12

At the Tommyfield Market in Oldham – the Greater Manchester town now on the front line of the UK’s battle with coronavirus – on Wednesday morning, there was frustration and fear in equal measure.

Frustration because of an overnight council warning that, after weeks of increasing infection rates, the borough may be just “days away” from becoming the first place in England returned to lockdown. “How did they let it get to this?” asked one person.

But fear too. Fear most of all perhaps. Fear that if pubs, restaurants, leisure centres and non-essential businesses in this historic mill town really do have to shut again for a prolonged period, it could cripple the entire area – for years to come.

“Look around,” said Dale Robinson, owner of Blooming Dale’s florists in Tommyfield. “Oldham’s been struggling for decades. Now this. There’s a lot of shops here that just about survived the first lockdown. They’ve scraped through. But a second one…”

A shake of his head. A glance down Albion Street where empty units are already dismally plentiful.

“I don’t know if there’d be much of a town to come back to afterwards,” he concludes.

That Oldham has had a difficult modern history, few would argue.

The destruction of both its mill industry in the Seventies and Eighties and then its engineering base in the Nineties was followed from 2010 by an especially eviscerating austerity: some 42 per cent of the council’s budget was cut here in a decade.

The result has been huge levels of hardship. Four wards within the Oldham Council area are in the top one per cent of the country’s most deprived. Three of England’s 20 worst patches for child poverty are here too.

Even the popularity of Tommyfield – an Aladdin’s cave built just 30 years ago and serving everything from fresh meat and veg to haircuts – is to some extent evidence of a population without disposable income. “People come here because they need good value just to get by,” says Robinson, who has run his business in the town for 19 years.

Now, the concern is that a second lockdown could decimate the still struggling economy here.

Robinson, himself, had to throw away £2,000 worth of stock during the national closure from March to June, while the council here - much to the astonishment of many – continued to charge traders full rent. “If there has to be another lockdown to save lives, so be it,” the 54-year-old, who employs four staff at the unit, says. “No-one’s going to argue with that. But don’t think it won’t hurt. It would be devastating.”

Pertinently, perhaps, if the dilemma is Oldham’s right now, it appears increasingly unlikely it will be the only place to find itself wrestling with the same predicament. With new infections across the country topping 1,000 for a second day running on Wednesday – the first time that’s happened since June – it is almost certain more towns will face such tough measures.

“It was crippling first time round and would be worse second,” says Ray Aslam, in between serving sweets and lollies at his Kandy Kingdom shop. “I know for a fact a lot of businesses here managed to get by because of the £10,000 grant from the government. But if there’s a local lockdown without that support, there would be closures all over town.”

The 35-year-old is a spokesperson for the Tommyfield Market Traders Association but he’s not just talking about the entrepreneurs there: “restaurants, pubs, businesses across the board – they have used everything to survive and get to a position where they could reopen – they don’t have anything left to fall back on.”

The wider issue, perhaps, is that once those businesses go, jobs, money and opportunities all disappear from the town. Council and support services already under strain become further stretched, while young people leave in search of work elsewhere. It is a vicious circle that could last decades, reckons Aslam.

“Oldham has been here before so we know how it goes,” he says before turning to a customer brightly. “Pear drops, love?”

There is another concern beyond the economy here too: that a new lockdown may lead to inter-community tensions.

Already it appears some residents are blaming spiralling infection rate on certain communities. Specifically, they are blaming the town’s 20 per cent Muslim population.

This, to be clear, is against the evidence. The spread, says Arooj Shah, the council’s cabinet member for Covid-19 recovery, is “in all areas, in all age groups, and in all communities”.

Nonetheless, there are concerns that, in a town where race riots exploded in 2001, such disinformation could lead to a rise in Islamophobia. “It is unfortunate that this is happening,” a spokesperson for the Oldham Muslim Centre said. “Members of the Muslim community have made – and continue to make – large sacrifices to stick to the guidelines and to play their part in bringing the spread under control.”

This, certainly, is supported by Katrina Stephens, Oldham’s director of public health, who says infections are occurring right across the board.

It was she who took the decision to warn residents that if restrictions already in place in the borough – mainly, different households not mixing – were not followed more rigorously, stricter measures may be imposed.

She did so after becoming alarmed that the infection rate had almost doubled in the last week. It now stands at 107.5 per 100,000 population. For context, when Leicester was kept in local lockdown in July – as the rest of the country was released from restrictions – the rate there was 135 per 100,000 people.

“It’s really difficult to know what will happen from here,” she told The Independent on Wednesday afternoon. “But that [lockdown] is not a measure we would take lightly. We understand the impact it would have and that is why we urged people to really follow the small steps already in place.”

It is not solely the number of infections which will be considered over the next couple of days as officials wrestle with the dilemma. It will also be proportions of positive tests and hospital admissions. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, part of the problem in Oldham has been that there has been specific major outbreak. Officials cannot pin a spread down to a certain business, bar or neighbourhood. It appears to be circulating everywhere.

“Which makes it difficult to tackle with more targeted measures,” Stephens said.

Reasonable enough but would a decision on a total lockdown take into account the sheer economic hardship people feared they would face? It would.

Would there be help from either central government or the council for those facing such hardships? A more ambiguous answer. “There are a range of discussions being had,” she said.

That probably isn’t the definitive answer that may have reassured many here.

But outside Smoke Yard – a burger and cocktail joint close to the recently refurbished town hall – manager Dave Turner felt the moral case for help was incontestable.

His restaurant had turned to deliveries during the national shut down and had managed to generate about 40 per cent of usual business. All the same, it had lost three staff and he wasn’t sure another prolonged period of closure could be survived.

“As I understand local lockdowns,” he said, “you shut one area so the virus doesn’t spread to other parts of the country. So Oldham would be bearing the brunt to protect others. Surely, if we’re making that sacrifice, it’s only fair that we get some help in return.”

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