As the Director of Public Health in Leicester, Ivan Browne readily admits he is carrying a huge weight on his shoulders.
The Professor in Public Health Practice at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) leads the team tasked with tackling numbers of COVID-19 cases in the city.
“I am the Director of Public Health but I am Leicester born-and-bred and I am inescapably linked with this city,” Ivan says.
“This is personal to me because this is people’s livelihoods that we are talking about. The measures that are in place now affect me and they affect my family. And the decisions we make at the city council affect the people I know and love.
“These are not easy calls that we are having to make. We have to balance the immediate threat of COVID-19 against the long-term threats to our society and the economy.”
With cases of COVID-19 higher in Leicester than in other parts of the country, the Government chose not to ease restrictions in Leicester as it had in other parts of the country. It was a sensible safety precaution and as a result, numbers of new cases have now started to fall.
As a result, the government has now eased some of those Leicester restrictions but the city and some parts of the county are still more regulated than the rest of the country.
Despite this, Ivan said he was impressed with how the city - and how DMU - had reacted to the extensions.
“It is great to work in partnership with DMU. Throughout, the university has shown itself keen to be key partners in tackling the local challenges posed by COVID 19.
“And my view is that the people of Leicester have responded remarkably,” Ivan says. “They have been absolutely incredible.
“I have walked around the city to see how people are adhering to the measures and everywhere has been quiet. People have been observing the public health guidance and staying at home and I want to commend them all for that.
“We need to get these numbers of cases down and we seem to be doing it.”
See how DMU is supporting Leicester community
When the Leicester extensions were first announced, the city became the focus of attention across the country, putting Ivan right at the centre of things.
“It has caused a media storm, of course, and I am very conscious about the responsibility we have for the people beyond Leicester too,” he said.
“Every question I have been fielding is about the national perspective. We were the first to have been put under tougher Government regulations, but we will not be the last.
“People are looking to see what is happening in Leicester and trying to understand how it might impact the rest of the country. We are essentially creating a template that others can use if they see a rise in cases.”
Ivan was aware of figures showing an increase in Leicester’s COVID-19 cases in June and he called in Public Health England to help establish what was happening and, more importantly, what needed to be done.
Ivan said: “The information we had been receiving prior to this was based on the testing done in hospitals.
“We started asking about the numbers we were getting through community testing, in places such as the Birstall Park and Ride and other areas around the city.
“As that data came through, we started to see Leicester had a higher rate of numbers in the community than other parts of the country. It was a huge concern.
“Was it a case that we were testing more people in the community or was it something other than that? We got Public Health England to help us and on June 17 we managed to get more complete data. The figures were definitely at odds with the rest of the country.
“Leicester then got placed into an extended period of lockdown which meant we could not start the next period of renewed guidance.”
It has meant the Public Health team at Leicester City Council working flat out to get on top of the situation.
“Given we do not have a vaccine we are limited in what we have in our arsenal but what we do have can be effective,” said Ivan. “The number one concern has always been for the community and asking what we can put in place to suppress COVID-19 cases.
“We have ramped up our response and are getting more testing done in the city and we are asking the population to continue to comply with social distancing. At the same time, we are trying to understand what has caused the spread.
“Leicester is cosmopolitan and everyone is welcome to our city. This diversity brings huge benefits but it can also bring challenges. We have to get into different communities with varying cultures and put out messages that speak directly to them and encourage them to go out and get tested.
“It has taken a lot of resource and a lot of hard work to get to this stage.”
Ivan’s parents were part of the Windrush Generation and settled in Leicester. His mum worked as a nurse at Leicester Royal Infirmary and his dad was a builder. Ivan proudly points out that his dad worked on many of the buildings that stand on the DMU campus today.
“I am tied to this city,” Ivan says. “There is no downtime for me at the moment. It is basically a case of me and my staff working from early in the morning to beyond midnight.
“Leicester requires that commitment during this period
“We need to work flat out because we want a situation where our families and friends can go out and get on with their lives. If there are things within our power to do that then we need to do it, whatever it takes.
“I really want to say to people “keep going. Keep doing the things you are doing”. I would also say that if the opportunity to be tested comes your way, get tested. And be responsible for others. We will get out of this situation, not as individuals, but together. We need to make sure our family, friends and co-workers keep their distance and get tested when they can.
“I sometimes say we are Leicester United versus this virus. All of us need to play a part so that together we can tackle it.”
Posted on Saturday 18th July 2020