Birmingham is in a race against time to halt a rise in coronavirus cases and the ‘devastating’ local lockdown that could follow, city leaders have warned today.
The battle is on to turn the tide as infections continue to cluster across the city.
The city will feature on the Government’s national watch list (published Friday) and will be offered ‘enhanced support’ as a result – that’s a step below ‘local lockdown’, and puts the city on warning of further action.
The message could not be more clear – if the infection rate continues to go up, a local lockdown could be upon us within days, and it would last for weeks.
“We are at a knife-edge moment,” said public health director Dr Justin Varney.
“The next five to ten days are crucial.”
The city currently has the 13th highest infection rate in the country, but most of the places above it are already in partial lockdown – including Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendleton, Rossendale, Bradford, Kirklees and Calderdale. Cases have also surged in Oldham.
Residents in Preston have been banned by the Government from gathering in each other’s homes and gardens.
What measures will follow if the city joins the national watch list?
Being on the national watch list, compiled weekly by the minister with Public Health England, will likely mean new restrictions and actions can follow. Sandwell was on the list after surges in cases following workplace outbreaks – it introduced voluntary measures and ramped up testing in response.
Possible measures for Birmingham include:
- restricting households meeting together
- renewed shielding for vulnerable people
- continued ban on visiting to care homes
Police are also expected to play a bigger role in cracking down on those flouting the rules.
More enforcement is also likely to follow against people not wearing masks and against bars and restaurants who fail to collect contact details.
Workers will also be reminded to continue to work ‘virtually’ as much as possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others.
Critically, public health messages in the community will be increased, while people will be encouraged to ‘whistleblow’ on businesses not following guidance.
There is no suggestion that schools, colleges and universities – due to restart in a fortnight – would be affected.
A full outline of the measures involved are likely to be released over the next 24 hours, clarifying what happens next.
Talks with Health Secretary Matt Hancock took place this morning to outline the situation in the city, led by city leader Ian Ward and chief executive Chris Naylor.
Said Dr Varney, who provided the briefing: “I expect we will be on that national list and will go on as an area of ‘enhanced support’ – that is not the level that Leicester and Greater Manchester are in (subject to legally enforced restrictive lockdown), but the level below that – think Northamptonshire, Blackburn, areas like that, certainly over the next week.”
“We will be providing additional guidance over the weekend (about what that means).
“We will also be providing additional messages around advising people to reduce the numbers when visiting each other’s houses.
“We are also stepping up advice to businesses.”
Dr Varney was addressing a webinar this afternoon organised by Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce for its members to address concerns about rising infection rates and the potential impact of a local lockdown.
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He warned: “Birmingham has to stand up and stand together on this. What we do in the next seven days will decide if we go into lockdown or not.
“If we do it will be for at least two or three weeks, and that will be devastating.”
He also hinted that even if the city did not go into lockdown now, the spectre of surges in cases triggering restrictions would be ever present in the months ahead – until a vaccine is found.
“We are likely to see a world in which we see these spikes come and we go into this situation for two or three weeks, then we come out again, and then back into it again – it will be this world of in and out of lockdown really until we get a vaccination,” he said.
Mayor Andy Street has also been in contact with the Health Secretary about the situation across the region, with Birmingham the current biggest cause of concern.
He said today: “With the right support and measures in place, Birmingham will be able to curb this rise and avoid any stricter lockdown measures being imposed as we have seen in Leicester and Greater Manchester.
“I have been in touch with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to update him on the situation on the ground in Birmingham.”
The mayor added: “It is becoming clear that some people’s responsibility is now starting to fray at the edges.
“I would urge everyone in Birmingham and across the wider West Midlands, particular the younger and middle-aged groups where we know the virus is now spreading, to please not let your resolve drop. The only way we will beat this virus and drive it out of the region is by every individual playing their part and following the guidelines.
“Whether you are in work, out shopping, or meeting with friends in a restaurant or pub, please do not forget the basics of social distancing, hand washing, and wearing a face covering where appropriate.
“I would also urge anyone who thinks they have symptoms to get tested, and to make sure all contacts are handed over to tracers if your test comes back positive.
“Finally, it is important to stress the West Midlands is NOT in a similar situation to Greater Manchester and facing the threat of a region-wide lockdown.
“While some of our boroughs have higher rate of infections than we would like, they are not rising exponentially nor at the level seen in the north when stricter lockdown measures were introduced. Public health teams are doing a brilliant job working around the clock to keep the levels of infection stable and under control.”
The watch list is unveiled tomorrow.
Neighbouring Sandwell has previously featured on the list, and was supported to introduce voluntary restrictions to help tackle a rise in infections. The rate has since fluctuated and it too remains an area of concern.
What would a local lockdown look like?
Addressing a group of business leaders this afternoon, Dr Varney outlined what was happening, and why, and what a local lockdown could mean.
The infection rate in the city is currently hovering around 30 cases per 100,000 people in the city over a week – the equivalent of around 320 cases a week.
It is currently the 13th highest rate in the country – but most of those above it are already in local lockdown.
New data from Public Health England suggests the rate has dropped to 25.8 cases per 100,000 people – however, Dr Varney said this could be explained by reporting delays. The crucial figures to watch, he said, would be out early next week.
The rhetoric from local leaders suggests the issue is not being taken lightly.
Dr Varney told the meeting, hosted by Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, that the whole area was “nervous” and anxiously watching infection rates spike across Birmingham and neighbouring areas.
He said he met council leaders from across the region today and said: “All of us are looking at what happens if Birmingham is locked down and others don’t; we are also watching carefully as numbers have been rising and fluctuating in Sandwell, and we see some increases on the border areas, around Solihull, Warwickshire.
“The whole region is a little bit nervous and we are all upping the ante and working together on this.”
He said what happens next “will depend on the data picture.”
“There are a lot of ifs and buts, but the next seven days are crucial.”
He said: “If we see geographical clustering (in specific hotspots) we might have a different approach, but if it continues as it has across the whole city we would look more broadly at the whole area.”
Measures could include:
- Restrictions on travelling in or out of the city for non essential travel, likely to be done on a voluntary basis initially but then enforced if infection rates continue.
- Enforcement against businesses not sticking to guidance
- Closures or restrictions on pubs, restaurants or shops
How much notice would the city get about a lockdown?
He announced emergency measures were being introduced to reduce the risk of community transmission, particularly between households. People were told not to meet up with other households at home as part of new lockdown restrictions.
While the pattern of infection is similar between the areas – Birmingham too is seeing lots of clusters linked to households – Dr Varney said that sudden, unexpected announcement was not likely to happen in Birmingham.
“One of the advantages we have in working with government now is we are given more headspace about what might happen.
” Leicester, for example, did not have that notice as the data flow was not good enough. (The city’s infection rates did not become apparent for days, so lockdown was imposed very quickly when the surge in cases became evident).
“My hope is we will get at least three to four days run-in to start to work with the public to prepare them and to prepare businesses.
“I am hoping we don’t get a decision on a Saturday night or, say, the Friday before Bank Holiday, but it really depends on what we all do now.
“Birmingham has to stand up and stand together on this.
“If we all step up, if businesses get risk assessments in place, put crowd and queue management in place, we all hand wash, wear masks, and socially distance, all those simple things that make a difference then we can avoid lockdown or at least defer it for longer.
He said that looking at other areas that have faced lockdowns “I think it is unlikely to be less than three weeks if we do get to that restriction lockdown phase.
“I know that would be devastating for business – the last thing our retail sector and hospitality sector needs is three weeks of people not shopping and spending money.
“It’s what we do now over the next seven to ten days that buys us time to avoid that kind of restrictive lockdown – because it will be devastating because of the impact of the disease on people’s lives and health but also potentially on their livelihoods and the economy of the city.”