The pandemic years will have exacerbated existing inequalities in health in Leicester, but the size of this impact still remains to be seen, the city’s director of public health has said, writes Hannah Richardson.
Leicester was among the hardest hit by the Covid pandemic and strict lockdown rules as the city spent more time than any other area under the blanket of Covid restrictions.
Residents experienced an additional 100 days of restricted freedoms between the start of the pandemic and December 5, 2022. The city saw 128,123 cases of the virus during that time and 1,171 local lives were lost.
Director of public health for Leicester City Council, Ivan Browne, said, “The future will not be without challenges, however; though the city is emerging from the period of restrictions, the lasting impact of the pandemic on people’s health, livelihoods and happiness is only just starting to be understood.”
Browne reflected on the pandemic years in his final annual report of his time as the director of public health for Leicester City Council before he leaves the post at the end of this month.
Local lockdown meant the people of Leicester faced “severely limited” opportunities to remain active and eat healthily, he said, while the stress of the pandemic increased alcohol and drug consumption in many residents and the number of cigarettes smoked by smokers.
Many food businesses increased their delivery and take away options resulting in larger numbers accessing more unhealthy food whilst also becoming less physically active.
Weight loss groups switched from a strategy of helping member decrease their weights to one of encouraging them to stay at the same weight. In the period between May 2020 and May 2021, there were one million more inactive adults nationally.
The city has seen increasing rates of obesity as a result of the pandemic, Browne said. Some 19 per cent of Leicester residents aged 16+ are obese, with a further 31 per cent classed as overweight.
Staying in their homes for a long period of time instead of undertaking usual activities, for many older people led to significant deconditioning, loss of mobility, muscle weakness and joint pain, the report said. For many, it also meant a loss of confidence and greater anxiety around going out, creating a greater sense of isolation.
Browne added: “In Leicester, residents experienced longer periods of lockdown than almost any other area, and given that these survey results were at an early point in the pandemic, it is not unreasonable to assume that these effects have become magnified over time.
“For many, every day activities such as climbing up and down stairs and going out to the shops became much more difficult. For some, this led to weight gain or an increase in joint pain or stiffness. It also led to people feeling less confident on their feet than before, all of which can increase a person’s falls risk.”
Children from poorer backgrounds were hit hardest as they had less access to online learning and lost out on a greater number of teaching hours.
Children with special educational needs and their families were also disproportionately disadvantaged by school closures through disrupted routines and the loss of access to vital support.
“For many children, the loss of learning time, school experience and other support systems may have had a lasting impact on their development and children and young people are still reporting problems with their mental health,” Browne said.
Residents have also said their mental health has gotten worse since the pandemic. Mental health disorders in people of working age are expected to increase by 1.2 per cent in 2025 and by 5.6 per cent in 2035.
However, Browne said: “Due to cost of living crisis and the known impact of economic recession on rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and suicidal behaviour, it is likely that demand will go above and beyond these estimates.”