Members of the British Pest Control Association (BPCA), which represents hundreds of pest control workers in the United Kingdom, have reported a 51 percent increase in rodent activity since the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. This was followed by a 78 percent increase in rodent activity during the next lockdown in early winter. (Related: Report: States that imposed lockdown have more COVID-19 deaths per million compared to no-lockdown states.)
"It seems their lifestyle patterns are changing," said Natalie Bungay, a technical and compliance officer affiliated with the BPCA, in an email to German media outlet DW. "Rats, in particular, are also becoming more visible in areas of population. With less footfall across cities and towns, there is less associated food waste being left in bins and on the floor."
"Also, bin areas behind restaurants and pubs are empty and free of food waste, making it unavailable for the local rat population."
Bungay explained that rats require about 200 grams of food a day to survive. If they can find that much food in cities, they'll be fine staying where they are. But because their regular sources of food waste are no longer generating enough garbage to sustain them, rats are being forced to venture further out.
"Rats seem to be moving from cities closer to residential areas, where we're still filling our bins with food waste," said Bungay.
"Rats are like little survival machines," said pest controller Michael Coates, who worked in the Richmond neighborhood of western London. "Wherever you get reliable access to food waste, they'll keep coming back." He noted that the longer Britain's lockdown lasted, the more conspicuous the rats will become and the more likely people will start seeing rats in and around their homes.
Coates mentioned one case where a woman who kept a bird feeder in her front yard saw a sudden infestation of rats who kept coming back to steal the food that was supposed to be for the robins.
"There were maybe 10 to 15 rats digging around the flower beds," he said.
Paul Claydon, another exterminator based out of Epping Forest in northeastern London, has seen much worse. Claydon described one incident where a colony of rats tried to dig into a rabbit hutch to eat the unsuspecting family pet.
"It might be that we are seeing and hearing them more often, working from home in the office under the loft … but I fear London may get a big surprise when it reopens," said Claydon. "Especially if businesses and properties that did have a problem haven't kept up with their pest control plans."
"We may see rats now where we wouldn't normally because they are so desperate," noted Bungay. "Rats can chew through very hard substances like soft metals and brick."
According to the BPCA, there are several measures the public can take to prevent rodents from infesting their gardens, or worse making their way into peoples' homes. These simple methods include securing all food sources, making sure any potential access points inside the home, such as air vents, are properly sealed and regularly cleaning their homes. Installing steel mesh screens in air vents and filling up cracks with steel or cement will also work.
Bungay has also warned against gardeners leaving compost heaps unattended, as they attract rats.
Hygiene is very important, as rodents are known to carry and transmit multiple terrible diseases, including leptospirosis, salmonella, listeria, Toxoplasma gondii and hantavirus.
Bungay has also advised people to regularly keep up with their scheduled pest control visits.
"If pest management visits have been maintained, then properties and businesses should be in a good position to reopen safely," she said.
"If you spot the signs of a rodent infestation, don't ignore it and get some professional help," added Bungay. "We don't want to see loads of businesses open back up and find a nasty surprise waiting for them."
Bungay has also advised against using cats to control the rodent population because they are "embarrassingly poor" at catching rats due to the size and ferocity of many of these pests.
While these solutions may help keep rodents away from individual homes, journalists investigating London's rat problem have noted that the authorities of the Greater London area do not have an overarching strategy for dealing with the rat population. Some exterminators have estimated this to be as high as 20 million – more than double the capital's population.
The London mayor's office told reporters pest control was the purview of the London Councils, the local government association uniting all of London's 32 borough councils plus the City of London. But when these journalists tried to get in touch with the London Councils' office, they said they didn't have a plan for what to do about the rat population – each borough was supposedly free to come up with a plan of their own to deal with the issue.
These same reporters attempted to contact multiple boroughs. Those that responded either did not have any comment, denied collecting any information on rats or said that pest control services were not subject to their authority.
Learn more about the negative side effects of extended coronavirus lockdowns by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.