What do the regulations do?

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull) Regulations 2020 established a ‘protected area’ covering the area of Birmingham City Council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. People resident in these areas face the following restrictions: gatherings of two or more people from different households in a private dwelling are prohibited. This includes gatherings in dwellings outside the protected area. Linked households, established between a household with only one adult and another household, are exempt.

The Government said this was to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 following an increase in cases in these areas. These restrictions are in addition to the ban on gatherings of more than six people, introduced on 14 September 2020. The restrictions only affect people visiting households. Shops, bars restaurants and cafes in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull would remain open. Schools would also remain open.

Parliamentary scrutiny

This statutory instrument was introduced using ‘made affirmative’ procedure, meaning that it came into force before being debated in either House. However, it must be approved by both Houses by 11 October 2020 to remain in force. The regulations were considered by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on 22 September 2020. They were not drawn to the special attention of the House. However, the committee published the following summary as part of its overview of instruments relating to Covid-19:

Although a requirement in England limiting groups meeting in or outdoors to no more than six people came into effect on 14 September, data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre indicated that the incidence rates of Covid-19 around Birmingham were significantly above the national average and increasing. The data also indicated that a high proportion of the new cases were due to transmission either within or between households. These Regulations therefore impose tighter restrictions on those living within the “protected area” of Birmingham City Council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. They prohibit those living within the protected area from gatherings of two or more persons from different households in private dwellings either within or outside the protected area (except for linked households as defined.) The need for these restrictions must be reviewed by the Secretary of State every 14 days, with the first review taking place by 29 September 2020.

Alongside these Regulations, care homes were also advised to only allow visits in exceptional circumstances.

The regulations are scheduled to be debated in the House of Lords on 7 October 2020. A date for the debate in the House of Commons has yet to be announced.

Why were the Regulations introduced?

When the new restrictions were announced, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, said:

After seeing cases in the West Midlands continue to rise, the decision has been taken in collaboration with local leaders to ban households mixing in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull. We never take these decisions lightly but social gatherings can spread the virus quickly, and we need residents to abide by the new rules to break the chains of transmission.

Where targeted action has been taken, we are seeing signs of progress, and today’s easements in Leicester are proof that the measures we are putting in place in collaboration with local councils have a positive effect.

The leader of Birmingham City Council, Ian Ward, has said the data indicated the increased infection rate had “risen mainly due to social interactions, particularly private household gatherings”. He urged local residents to follow the new regulations. This view was echoed by the Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street. Statements in support of the lockdown were also made by the chief executive of Solihull Council, Nick Page, and the interim leader of Sandwell Council, Maria Crompton.

Matt Hancock made a statement on 25 September 2020 updating the House of Commons, in which he said the Government had recently reviewed the situation in Birmingham, Solihull and Sandwell. He said the Government had decided to maintain the current restrictions in these areas.

Changing rates of infection

Upper-tier local authority  Week 37, between 7 August and 13 September 2020  Week 39, between 21 and 27 September 2020 
Birmingham  88.5  119.9 
Sandwell  64.5  90.1 
Solihull  72.6  74.5 
Average for England  36.5  58.7 

(Source: Public Health England, ‘PHE Weekly National COVID-19 Report’, accessed 2 October 2020)

Reactions to the new restrictions

The regulations were raised in an urgent question in the House of Commons on 15 September 2020. Concerns were raised about their impact by MPs from the areas affected. For example, the Labour MP for Warley, John Spellar commented:

People in Sandwell and Birmingham certainly want to know why their whole boroughs are being suddenly locked down and not just the currently affected areas within them, but they also need a plan on how we are going to contain the virus without paralysing society and the economy. We may have to coexist for years with the virus, as countless societies and countries have had to live with many awful diseases over millennia, and even now today, so when are we going to transit from reactive risk avoidance to prudent risk management?

Matt Hancock responded by saying:

We absolutely need to control this virus. I very much hope that we will make very significant progress, through treatments and vaccines, within the sorts of times that I set out previously—definitely in less than a millennium. I think that we will make significant progress in the coming months. However, in that time, we do have to control the virus.

We took the action in Sandwell having looked carefully at the data. Working with the right hon. Gentleman’s local authority, we also looked carefully at whether we should only put some parts of Sandwell under local measures—in particular, the Smethwick area was much more significantly affected earlier on—but it was clear that the virus was spreading throughout Sandwell, so working with the local authority, we decided to take local action across the whole district. That is the sort of action that we have to take.

The Birmingham Mail reported on 11 September 2020 that people in Birmingham were “baffled” by the regulations. People the paper had spoken to asked why the restrictions covered meetings in households but not in shops, pubs and restaurants. The director of public health for Birmingham, Dr Justin Varney, argued that this decision was justified on the following grounds, saying:

When we visit a pub or restaurant or other Covid secure location, we are distanced, we sanitise regularly, places are clean and risk assessed and, in some locations, wear face coverings. When at home we are more relaxed, it is easy to not religiously adhere to those guidelines—we forget or are just unable to keep our distance, exchange handshakes and hugs, pass around food and drinks, or forget to clean light switches or door handles.

Local testing in Birmingham

On 22 September 2020, Birmingham City Council introduced a “drop and collect” testing service. It encouraged members of the public to use the service regardless of whether or not they had Covid-19 symptoms.

Read more

Image by West Midlands Police on Flickr.