Coronavirus: Why are London infection rates greater north of the Thames?

Andy Gregory
·4-min read
What is driving the north-south divide in London’s coronavirus caseloads? (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)
What is driving the north-south divide in London’s coronavirus caseloads? (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

London is set to move to Tier 2 coronavirus restrictions this weekend, in a move that will see all of the city’s nine million residents subjected to the same bans on socialising with other households.

Despite this uniform application of measures, official statistics show the level of infections are split almost neatly by the river Thames.

Nine of the capital’s 10 hardest-hit boroughs sit north of the river, according to Public Health England (PHE) data, while eight of the 10 least-affected boroughs are in the south.

The exception at the top of the table is Richmond upon Thames, which as of 10 October had the second-highest infection rate in the capital, with nearly 138 infections per 100,000 people.

Infection rates in Hackney, Ealing, Redbridge, and Hammersmith and Fulham were among 11 boroughs which topped 100 per 100,000 residents, while those among the lowest in the capital were southerly Croydon, Bromley, Sutton and Bexley, which all sat below 73 cases per 100,000 people.

With the Thames having failed to act as a barrier of any significance since it was first extensively bridged centuries ago, why – in 2020 – does a borough’s location in relation to the river appear to be such a deciding factor in how large its share of Covid-19 is?

While infection rates in the southern boroughs are rising quickly and are somewhat catching up with their counterparts north of the Thames, a PHE official told The Independent, the public health agency is aware of the current disparity.

While some on social media suggested that infection rates appeared to correspond with areas that had the least Tube connectivity, the PHE official said this remained anecdotal, and that data did not currently suggest the London Underground network was a leading factor.

Officials believe the higher infection rates in parts of north London are being driven largely by two factors.

The first is young adults mixing more with people from other households. The second is that some boroughs with higher rates tend to have more densely populated communities and larger numbers of people living in the same household, who are likely to become infected once the virus enters the home, the PHE official said.

At the start of October, the mayor of Tower Hamlets – which had 93 cases per 100,000 people – urged residents to avoid seeing friends and family in private homes “unless absolutely necessary”, calling the situation a “matter of life and death”.

And in early September, Hackney’s director of public health Dr Sandra Husbands urged residents “to avoid close contact with other households, as it is through mixing in each others’ homes that the virus has the best chance of spreading”, the Hackney Gazette reported.

While previous studies by the Office for National Statistics have suggested the virus has disproportionately affected communities with higher rates of deprivation, in terms of fatality rates as well as unemployment and mental health issues, one independent study published in the Journal of Public Health also found those living overcrowded UK households are at “significantly greater odds” of contracting the virus.

The Independent previously reported that the east London borough of Newham – which had 101 infections per 100,000 inhabitants – suffers from the worst overcrowding in England, with more than 25 per cent of homes not containing enough bedrooms for the number of occupants living in them.

Meanwhile, business leaders on the Covid Recovery Commission have warned that the pandemic is widening inequalities and disproportionately affecting those living in the poorest neighbourhoods. But they also pointed out that some of the highest levels of deprivation are found in some of the wealthiest areas of the country.

Speaking as to why the affluent borough of Richmond Upon Thames currently housed the capital’s second-highest infection rate, the PHE official suggested some 10 per cent of the infections there could be attributed to a calculation error by which the results of students who test positive while studying in other parts of the country are added to the borough’s total.

As health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed on Friday that London would move to the “high” Covid alert level, the first sign of dissent appeared from local leaders.

Colin Smith, leader of Bromley Council, which had the second-lowest infection rate in the capital, said it was “not fair in any way” for all of the capital's boroughs to be “clumped together in a one-size-fits-all arrangement”.

“What this decision singularly fails to recognise or reflect is that large tracts of Bromley feature as open farm and woodlands hosting medium size villages, with far more in common with Kent than they have with other 'London' boroughs,” he said.

"I would be the very first to support doing so if the empiric evidence proves the need, but today's decision is premature and makes a complete mockery of the so-called 'localism' agenda."

City Hall has been approached for comment.

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