Heading back to their student halls with a bottle of wine, 19-year-olds Roz Monaghan and Mackenzie Bradley-Wilkinson are feeling tense. The pair live in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, where Covid-19 rates are the highest in the country, more than 10 times the average.
A combination of a majority-unvaccinated population, a return to face-to-face teaching, good weather and the end of exams has sent Covid rates in Leeds’s student area sky-high.
While the UK average is 105 cases per 100,000 people, the case rate in the Hyde Park ward is a huge 1,547 per 100,000 people and it is rising rapidly. In neighbouring Hyde Park Corner and Woodhouse Cliff, there are 1,044 cases per 100,000 people.
Spanish and Arabic student Monaghan said: “I have quite a lot of paranoia now that the rates have gone up. At the start of the pandemic, you avoided everyone on the street because you didn’t know who might have come into contact with it. I’m back to presuming everyone has it.”
That is a fair assessment given that one in 75 people here tested positive in the last seven days and the real infection rate is likely to be much higher, due to people who may be unaware they have it or fail to report it.
“We’ve all had it. This whole road just dropped, one by one,” said 20-year-old sociology student Amy Cooke, gesturing to a row of red-brick terraced houses opening on to the park.
“We’re very aware of which houses have it and we avoid them but we’re not letting it rule our lives. We’re sensible but we’re still students.”
Cooke, Monaghan, Bradley-Wilkinson and most people in Hyde Park – where the median age is 22 – are still waiting for their first vaccine jab.
Physics student Mae Jankowski said the government’s roadmap of reduced restrictions had allowed the virus to spread in areas where the majority of the population had not been offered the vaccine. “People are following the rules set for everyone, but here it’s spreading like it would have done before because hardly anyone is vaccinated,” the 21-year-old said.
Alex Sobel, Labour MP for Leeds North West, said the council had responded quickly in putting in place surge testing in and around the two most affected wards, including going door-to-door with testing kits.
“But what we haven’t got is surge vaccinating,” he said. “Obviously that’s not a panacea but with what’s going on they are at high risk in this area and it’s better to get young people vaccinated as soon as possible. It seems logical that we should be vaccinating people here right down to the lowest age group, which is 18. So far, I haven’t seen anything that indicates the government has looked at that.”
Though the risk of death or serious complications is lower among young adults, places where the virus spreads more freely are more likely to produce variants and there is a risk of a variant emerging that current vaccines are not effective against.
In Hyde Park, any effect of the spread due to the end-of-year parties and people spending more time in pubs watching the Euro football tournament will not be present in the figures yet.
While they wait for vaccination rates to catch up, local businesses have taken it upon themselves to put in place extra precautions while still trying to provide an enjoyable experience for young people who are at the end of a difficult and disappointing year.
Popular venue the Brudenell Social Club had six security staff working on Friday night in order to manage Covid measures, which included temperature checks on entry and compulsory masks when walking around outside, neither of which are required by law.
Nathan Clark, the Brudenell’s owner, said: “It might seem like we’re going a bit overboard but people care about the community. This is my home, as well as a business.”