Birmingham’s residents and businesses head into the weekend with a sense of foreboding, with more restrictions certain to come in the days ahead to try to “turn the tide” on rising coronavirus rates.
The question is not if, but how quickly and exactly what measures will be imposed in the days ahead, as infection continues to spread and local hospitals fill up.
Today Birmingham City Council leader Cllr Ian Ward made his position unequivocal – only a four week, full national lockdown will do.
If introduced quickly, it should mean restrictions can be eased for the festive season.
“We need a four week lockdown so if we can implement that as soon as possible it gives us the best opportunity to get on top of the numbers, drive the cases back down again and allow for some easing of restrictions for families over that Christmas period,” said Cllr Ward.
But anything less would “lead to avoidable deaths” and prolong economic misery, he told a regional press conference this afternoon.
Guided by the coronavirus infection data, the expertise of his public health director Dr Justin Varney, and informed by the unfolding crisis in city hospitals, he said it was clear a move into Tier 3 was inevitable – but would not work.
“The problem is the tier system just isn’t working.
“Areas in Tier 3 are still seeing rising cases.”
Delay, he said, would be damning: “We must not repeat the mistake of last March in not moving sooner.”
“I am now very, very concerned about what I am seeing,” said Cllr Ward.
“I am of the opinion that England needs to follow France, Germany and Wales into a national circuit breaker as quickly as possible.
“We have seen across Europe that France is locking down, where case rates are higher than here, and Germany is locking down, where case rates are lower. Germany are doing far better than the UK and have experienced fewer deaths.
“My view, when it emerged the Government had chosen to ignore calls for circuit-breaker in September, was that if the three-tier system didn’t work then the Government would have serious questions to answer,” he said.
“The Government must reconsider its position and agree to a circuit-breaker and put the right support in place for jobs and businesses.
“The numbers have only gone in one direction and continue to.
“We need decisive action from the Government.”
Cllr Ward also voiced concern that the Government might be delaying a national lockdown until London’s rates were sufficiently high.
Conservative mayor Andy Street agreed urgent action was needed to “turn the tide” – but fell short of supporting lockdown calls.
“I am very clear we cannot stand still with our restrictions. We will need to move to further restrictions – but what that will mean is not yet agreed.”
Mr Street, the West Midlands mayor, said a countrywide four week ‘circuit breaker’ to try to ease the pressure on struggling NHS hospitals and curb rising infections would have “greater economic and social impacts” than regional or local restrictions in hotspot areas.
But he added it was clear that differences between the best and worst infection case rate areas were now “equalising”.
Mayor Street – who has gone into battle recently with his Government over testing delays and the economic support packages for local businesses, and supported a bid to keep West Midlands areas out of Tier 2 – said he was “not proposing, certainly not” a full lockdown.
“But we have to recognise as a country is that all areas of the country are moving fast – yesterday’s data showed the fastest increase was in the south so there is clear evidence that where restrictions have come in it has slowed the rate but some are still moving fast – so we have to think about the policy in respect of that.”
He said he would continue to speak with council leaders and public health officials across the region next week on the best way forward:
“It might not be Tier 3, it might go beyond that because there might be things we think will be most effective so that is what I want to do – to get the right measures for our situation.”
While local leaders wrestle with what the right approach is, there has been silence from Westminster.
It emerged today that a 14 day review of the Tier 2 restrictions imposed on Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton in mid October came and went on Tuesday – without a word from Government.
Cllr Ward told today’s meeting: “I had hoped we would have had the opportunity to speak with the Government this week (about our situation). We were told when we went into Tier 2 there would be a 14 day review, that was up Tuesday, so my expectation was we would be in discussion through this week.
“That has not happened.”
He said he feared there would now be no opportunity to ‘make a case’ to ministers before they meet to decide which areas require extra restrictions.
“The window of opportunity for meaningful dialogue has disappeared.”
This appeared to be confirmed by Department of Health and Social Care regional representative Clive Wright, who said national Bronze, Silver and Gold meetings next week would decide what happened next – and only then open negotiations with affected areas.
It makes for an unsettled and anxious week ahead for residents and businesses.
Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce chief executive Paul Faulkner said taking the best course of action to save lives was “a given” – but any restrictions needed to come with “a very clear plan on the support for businesses.”
But he also said the proposed four week lockdown might not, as hoped be for a limited time – “the planning needs to account for that.”
He said businesses would also want to see the time spent effectively to improve test and trace and other measures “to ensure once it did end rates didn’t just rise again.”
Award winning city chef Aktar Islam was equally stoic: “If that’s what the powers that be decide then we must – but they need to ensure that appropriate support is available to businesses to ensure they are still alive to reopen and rebuild the economy.”
Why are more restrictions deemed necessary?
Case rates and hospital admissions are rising nationally and locally.
Around 300 hospital beds in the city now have patients with coronavirus. Some 33 are in intensive care beds managed by University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust. More are in ICU at City Hospital.
As a result, in an unprecedented move, people are being turned away from city A&Es who are not deemed critical or urgent.
Increasing numbers of planned operations are also being rescheduled.
In the community, case rates are going up and have continued to go up since Tier 2 restrictions were introduced 18 days ago.
Birmingham now has a rate of 270 cases per 100,000 people, up from 223 last week; Walsall’s rate is 311, Sandwell is approaching a rate of 300, Wolverhampton has a rate of 250 cases, up from 180 last week, with Solihull rising from 204 to 238.
Other parts of the wider West Midlands are also seeing rising rates.
Most worryingly, rates are rising among the over 60s and vulnerable residents, with outbreaks starting to appear in some care homes.
Infection rates among the over 60s in Birmingham is now at 199 cases per 100,000 – a cause of alarm, as older people are more at risk from the more severe impact of the illness.
There have also been 280 deaths in one day across the country – more than doubling in two weeks.
We have contacted the Department of Health and Social Care to ask for a comment on the local situation.