Covid: The city that has lived through a year of restrictions

By Caroline Lowbridge
BBC News, East Midlands

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image copyrightSarah Cooper
image captionSarah Cooper and her partner Chris Boxall have not been able to get any support from family members

While many families have found the lockdown limitations of the past few months gruelling, for residents of one city a non-stop year of restrictions began 12 months ago. BBC News speaks to families from Leicester about the heartbreak of spending so long apart from their loved ones.

"It's been awful to be honest because we've not had any help. We haven't seen anyone."

Sarah Cooper's first year as a mother has been one of the most difficult years of her life.

Vanessa was born on 14 March, and complications with the birth meant Sarah had to stay in hospital until 22 March - the day before the first lockdown.

As Sarah remained stuck in hospital the world outside changed, and it has never been the same since.

"My partner Chris was the only one allowed to visit me and every day he said more and more things were closing," says Sarah.

"Then it all became surreal so quickly. I thought when I got out we would be able to go round to stores, to introduce her to family, but we didn't have any of that.

"We just straight away got shut indoors and, being in Leicester, we haven't really got out."

image captionSarah fears Vanessa will be scared of her other family members when she eventually meets them

Vanessa has met just one other relative - her great aunt. She has only seen the rest of her family - her great granny, granddad and her godmother - on video chats.

"It upsets me because she's going to be scared when she meets them," says Sarah.

"She's not going to have that bonding experience they're meant to have when they're so little.

"Everybody keeps telling me it's not going to affect her, but what they don't understand is that it still affects me."

image copyrightSarah Cooper
image captionThe family spent most of 2020 at home, unable to mix with family due to Leicester's lockdown restrictions

Sarah spent most of her maternity leave indoors, while Chris worked from home.

During the periods of national lockdown, the family would leave the house for exercise but even this was difficult as Sarah's emergency Caesarean section left her needing physiotherapy.

"We'd aim to do a walk every day just round our block," she said. "Sometimes we'd walk for an hour and other days I would be in so much pain we could only do five minutes."

image copyrightSarah Cooper
image captionSarah and Chris with their family in happier times

Sarah and Chris are hoping the vaccination roll-out may mean a family reunion is on the cards some time in 2021 but, Sarah says, it "feels so far off".

Meanwhile, she says: "We will just try to make the best of it."

'I struggled a lot'

image copyrightDiana Omokore
image captionDiana Omokore started living with fellow care leaver Stephen Faddes so they could both have some company

Most students left Leicester and went back home at the start of the first lockdown, but as a care leaver, Diana Omokore had no home to go to.

This meant she was one of only a few people left living in her halls of residence, built to accommodate 600 people.

"At first I didn't really mind because it was a lot quieter," says Diana, 21.

"Obviously no-one was sure how long lockdown was going to go on for. As the weeks went on, it became really isolating. I was used to being around people."

image copyrightBrother Bear
image captionDiana has to do most of her classes online

Diana says she "struggled a lot with [her] mental health" during this period of isolation.

However, she managed to make friends with a fellow student who is also a care leaver, via a university Facebook group.

She and 23-year-old Stephen are now flatmates at their student halls.

"I think it's a lot better - it's nice to have someone to live with," she says.

image copyrightBrother Bear
image captionDiana is in the third year of a medical science degree

Diana is in the third year of a medical science degree and all of her lessons have moved online, meaning lots of hours of staring at a computer screen.

However, she has adopted a routine to keep herself occupied. This involves doing yoga or ballet in the morning before her studies, going for regular walks and learning French. She also volunteers for Childline.

"I'm starting to get used to it because it's been a year now," she says. "I think it was a lot more difficult at the start."

'It's heartbreaking'

image copyrightSara Garner
image captionSara and her family

As an only child with parents who are registered disabled and in their 80s, Sara Garner feels the weight of responsibility for their wellbeing.

Prior to lockdown, the Leicester-based family was in touch every week and there was a close bond between Sara's parents, Norman, 87, and Sheila, 84, her husband Dale and her two boys Dan, 16, and William, 11.

But for the past year, apart from a couple of medical appointments and one visit to a garden centre, Sara says her parents have barely left the house.

"My dad has multiple minor health conditions that put him at risk so even though my parents have had their first vaccination, they are still too scared to leave the house," she says.

image copyrightSara Garner
image captionThe family are close and the separation from Sara's parents has been difficult

Sara does her parents' shopping for them and checks on them every week.

"I literally stand outside their home, on their driveway and we shout messages to each other through the kitchen window," she says.

"There have been a couple of times we have managed to see them in their back garden, but that's been it.

"I want to keep them safe."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionLeicester has faced coronavirus restrictions since March 2020

For the close-knit family, the separation has been difficult.

"I am aware I am not going to have them around much longer," Sara says. "It's so hard to know that these are the last years of their life and I can't spend time with them.

"In normal times, I take them out to cafes or they come round and see the boys after school.

"I still chat to them on the phone but it's not the same. My mum said, 'I might never live to see the boys properly again'. That's heartbreaking."

image copyrightSara Garner
image captionIn normal times, Sara's parents and her children regularly spend time together

For some in the city, Sara among them, emergence from restrictions feels like a kind of impossible dream.

"You feel a kind of numbness," says Sara. "I think we're just resigned to it now."

A year of restrictions

According to the government, each stage of Leicester's restrictions has been dependent upon the data at the time.

The city's director of public health Ivan Browne said rates in Leicester were coming down.

"We know it takes longer for rates to come down in Leicester than they do in other places, but equally Leicester does not experience the high, sudden peaks in infection levels that have been experienced in some other cities," he said.

He called on residents to continue to follow the rules and take up the vaccination.

City mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said: "There are few cities in the UK where the impact of the virus has been felt as keenly as it has been in Leicester.

"We have been under some sort of restriction since last March, often out of step with the rest of the country.

"However, I am proud of the strength and determination with which Leicester citizens have responded to the many challenges of the pandemic."

Mike Sandys, director of public health for the county council, said the region's geography may be a factor in its high rankings in the coronavirus infection table during 2020 and 2021.

"We are the crossroads of the country," he said. "How much of a role that plays we don't know, but it must play a part at least."

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