Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Baroness Penn:

Moved by Baroness Penn

That the Regulations laid before the House on 14 September be approved.

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government set out their approach to preventing, containing and managing outbreaks in the Covid-19 Contain Framework, which sets out how national and local partners work together to break the chain of transmission. In other words, it represents a partnership between national and local government. At the national level, the Government have increased the powers available to local authorities through the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 so that local leaders can take targeted action as early as possible.

Public Health England makes detailed data on infection rates available to local areas as well as providing public health advice. Where required, NHS Test and Trace seeks to increase testing resources to support the rapid identification of cases. For their part, local leaders can complement their legal powers by using all the resources at their disposal to target communications, promote compliance and maximise the reach of testing.

The process of monitoring that the Government have put in place allows us to spot emerging areas of concern early. The Government and local leaders then consult regularly to identify problems and solutions. Our aim is always to consult local leaders on proposed legislative changes and, so far as possible, reach a consensus. This partnership approach has been very visible in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull.

These regulations came into force on 15 September, following an announcement by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that the latest epidemiological data and local insights supported targeted action being taken to tackle the outbreak in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull. The incidence rates in Birmingham had increased to 95.1 per 100,000 of the population over a seven-day period from 2 to 8 September. Test positivity was also high, at 8.1%. Incidence rates had also increased in the neighbouring local authorities of Sandwell and Solihull.

The virus was widespread across wards in these areas, regardless of the types of housing or other factors, which contrasts with more localised patterns that we have seen in other parts of the country. The local director of public health in Birmingham was concerned that household transmission was the key driver of the outbreak, hence the focus in the regulations on mitigating that risk.

The regulations prevent gatherings involving more than one household in private dwellings. This includes outside spaces that are part of those private dwellings. Not only do the regulations prevent people who live in the protected areas from gathering in a private dwelling or garden with any other household, anywhere, but they also prevent people who live outside the protected area from gathering with another household in a private dwelling or garden within the protected area.

However, there are specific exemptions, including for work purposes, education and the provision of emergency assistance. Hotels and care homes and education, military and prison accommodation are not included in the definition of a private dwelling. In general, these regulations mirror the provisions already in place in parts of the north of England and Leicester.

I stress that, throughout, we have worked very closely with local leaders, not least to increase testing and provide crucial data. For their part, local leaders have not hesitated to use their own powers to tackle the outbreak and have worked tirelessly to ensure that communications have reached all parts of the community. I commend them for their response to the outbreak, which included using their local powers to give directions on imposing prohibitions, restrictions or requirements on local businesses to ensure that they complied with Covid-secure guidelines. They also agreed with local bars and restaurants to introduce “table service only” to reduce the risk of transmission before that became a national requirement.

This has been, and continues to be, a shared endeavour. I am sure that the whole House will join me in thanking the local director of public health, Justin Varney, and local council leaders for their tireless efforts, as well as other members of the local resilience forum, Public Health England and Joint Biosecurity Centre staff.

Since these measures were introduced, the numbers of positive cases in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull have, unfortunately, increased, although not at the rate seen in other parts of the country. The incidence rates per 100,000 for the seven-day period from 25 September to 1 October were 145.5 for Birmingham, 113 in Sandwell and 108 in Solihull. Our co-ordinated local and national effort, particularly on the part of people living in these local authority areas, is therefore likely to be reducing the rate of growth, as the incidence rates have not increased in recent weeks to the level seen in other parts of the country.

Household transmission is still understood to be the main driver of current case levels, so it is crucial that these regulations remain in force and for the people in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull to continue to observe the “Hands, face, space” practices. These regulations once again demonstrate our willingness and ability to take action where we need to. I repeat that the Government are acutely aware that these are not easy decisions.

The next review of the health protection regulations for Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull is due on or before 8 October, which is tomorrow. We will of course make public the outcome of this next review in due course. I am grateful to all Members for their continued engagement in this challenging process and for their scrutiny of the regulations. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 2:51 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. I declare an interest as a Brummie—born, bred, educated and apprenticed. I had the privilege of serving the constituency in which I was born for 27 years in the other place. I live in the West Midlands, in Ludlow, which is of course not in Birmingham, but I still have close connections. My wife and I are members of the police family in Birmingham. I was in the city a few days ago and was really impressed by the Covid precautions in both Snappy Snaps and the Apple Store in New Street.

As the Minister said, the regulations are really the result of the household growth of the virus. Schools and industry do not appear to be the transmission areas. The seven West Midlands local authorities in the conurbation are very closely connected. It would be useful if the Minister could say something in her wind-up about the other four.

My contacts tell me that as far as hospitality is concerned, the pubs in the city centre are being meticulous in how they operate during the day, with their staff rules, and at closing time. But something really ought to be done about other premises selling alcohol after 10 pm. That really ought to be looked at.

Looking at the coronavirus maps for the area, as I did recently, it is very clear that things are mixed across all three local authorities. In some parts the virus hardly figures; in others it is very high. It is also obvious that in areas of high-density housing where multiple generations live, the rates are a lot higher. It would be counterproductive, in my view, to separate areas within a local authority. That would do worse than stigmatise the high areas—but I do not intend to list the possible consequences, so that I am not misunderstood.

I understand, for example, that the right honourable Member for Sutton Coldfield wants his constituency to be removed. Sutton Coldfield has since 1974 been an integral part of Birmingham, and it is to Birmingham that residents pay their council tax. I appreciate that some areas of Sutton, such as Little Aston, are not included, but its residents do not pay their council tax to Birmingham because they do not live in Birmingham. This needs to me made abundantly clear in the confusion about postal codes. It has nothing to do with the postal codes.

The lockdown is not solving the problems, since the cases are rising in the lockdown areas, as the Minister has just made clear. I understand that the rise can be up to tenfold in a lockdown area. We really need an answer as to why this is.

There are two key questions that I want answers to. First, what Covid number are the Government aiming for to reduce the restrictions or abolish them? Local authorities, and local people, need some idea of what the aim is in order to change the restrictions. Secondly, why are not all areas with the same high case levels subject to local lockdowns? It is now abundantly clear that there is an unfairness around the country. The constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the local government Secretary of State have higher levels of cases than some in the lockdown area, yet they are excluded. Why? It is a legitimate question—not a divisive question, in the words of the Secretary of State for Health, but a factual one to which we really need an answer.

People are being left baffled by the present arrangements. Of course, the key missing ingredient is one that we keep being told about, in many ways, whenever anybody mentions Sweden. There is a big difference: the Swedish population trust their Government. Our population do not trust their Government, and the Government need to do more to engender their trust.

Finally, there has been a virtual silence regarding those people put into shielding in the early months of the pandemic: I declare an interest as one of them. Why is there this silence? If you now live in a local lockdown area and were previously shielding, it is even more worrying not to be told anything about what is going to happen. So there really needs to be a national plan for those who require shielding, whether inside or outside the lockdown areas.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees 2:56 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I am afraid that my knowledge of the greater Birmingham area is nowhere near as good as his, so I do not know whether he is among the people who were delighted when Aston Villa ignored the rule of six on Sunday—for those of your Lordships with a passing interest in football.

The noble Baroness, Lady Penn, was extremely helpful in her introduction of these regulations. She not only explained that the increase in infection rates was much more localised this time than in March and April of this year but was able to tell us that the principal transmission route in Birmingham is multiple households, rather than hospitality venues. These regulations therefore contain the rules about two households and linked households. My point to her is that this is not the first area where this has been the case. Like me, the noble Baroness will have listened to the debates on the instruments for Leicester, in which there were similar patterns of transmission. What has been learned from the authorities in Leicester, where I understand that the transmission rates have gone down, with regard to these areas?

The Minister said in her remarks that this measure was due to be reviewed on 8 October. I believe that paragraph 4(2) says that the first review was to be carried out by 29 September. Is that 29 September reporting on 8 October, or what? As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, will attest, we are now well into a number of these regulations, and there are more to come. With each one, every time we come into Parliament, we must build on the knowledge of what has happened in preceding areas. We now need to know what is happening. Why is there an increased rate of infection in these areas, but one which is lower than in other areas that are not subject to lockdown?

Finally, I ask two things. Given that this is about transmission between households rather than in the hospitality sector, is the use of fixed penalty notices an appropriate means of enforcing these regulations? Secondly, we need to get to the point where we are on the front foot with this virus. We need to pursue active strategies to knock it back. So what is being done to look at areas nearby, such as Dudley, Wolverhampton or Coventry, where there may be a similar demographic? What information is being exchanged by local authorities, environmental health officers, public health officers and the NHS? These are fairly draconian measures, taken for reasons that we all understand, but we must get to a point where we can refine these orders in the light of experience and better data to get to the point where individual citizens can take their own pre-emptive preventive action, rather than being subject to draconian laws like these.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Deputy Chairman of Committees

The noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 3:00 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, as a Birmingham resident, I shall focus on the city itself, though mindful of the challenges in Solihull and Sandwell. However, before doing so, I want to focus on a more general matter: the relationship between the Government, local authorities and other public bodies. We have debated this before. I accept that there is a good working relationship between the city councils and the Government, but right from the start the Government generally seem to have excluded local bodies from the key part that they could have played in helping to combat and manage the virus. Public health directors were ignored and NHS and university lab capacity was overlooked.

As the Institute for Government pointed out in its analysis of government decision-making,

“The decisions on lockdown and school closures were taken and introduced swiftly, and with little consultation and planning for how they would work in practice

The institute said:

“We heard from senior government officials that, in some cases, they were taking their instructions directly from the prime minister’s daily press conference—with limited or no opportunity to feed in advice before decisions were made.”

Yet at the Conservative Party conference, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, bemoaned the most overcentralised bureaucracy in western Europe. But was it not the noble Baroness and her colleagues who set up a hyper-centralised organisation to run track and trace, which is now making the most monumental mess of it?

I was struck by a comment from Newcastle City Council leader, Nick Forbes, who said confusions over the latest restrictions were “deeply unhelpful”, and that they were very difficult to enforce and had left dangerous conspiracy theories to fill the void. A frequent complaint from many leaders is that local authorities were often given little notice of when local regulations were to be made.

Last night, in the very interesting response to the Covid Statement, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, spoke on this. He said:

“The mayor of a city simply does not have a huge laboratory in which to do tens of thousands of tests a day. The mayor of another city simply does not have a control room filled with PhD analysts who can crunch the numbers and run massive supercomputers with complex algorithms to look at millions and millions of items of data within minutes. These are not the functions of local government, nor will they ever be.”—[Official Report, 6/10/20; col. 608.]

I have reflected on this, and I fully accept that the Government have at their disposal some very clever and committed people. But at the end of the day, however many experts you have, it falls to politicians to look at the options and make decisions. Frankly, I do not see why local government leaders cannot be part of that process. When you think of the calibre of leaders such as Ian Ward in Birmingham, Newcastle City Council leader, Nick Forbes, or Judith Blake in Leeds, and many others, you can see that they are quite able to look at the data and share in the decisions that have to be made.

My noble friend Lord Rooker asked two very pertinent questions about local lockdowns. Today at Prime Minister’s Questions, Kier Starmer pointed out that the Prime Minister’s own Hillingdon area has a rate higher than some areas where they face new curbs. Why is that? In 19 out of 20 areas that have been under restrictions for over two months, we have actually seen an increase over that period. Why is that, and what does it say for the current strategy on local lock- downs?

The Minister will be aware that, in Birmingham, 15% of cases since the start of September have been in the five to 18 age range, so school transmission is now a significant driver. Contact tracing data since the start of September shows that 83% of contacts for confirmed cases were within households. Hospitality accounts for only 2% of contacts, yet we are threatened with further restrictions on the hospitality trade. Will the noble Baroness ensure that an evidence-based approach is taken if indeed further restrictions are to be made in that sector? As far as the West Midlands is concerned, it supports 135,000 jobs, contributing £12.6 billion a year to the West Midlands economy.

Finally, will the noble Baroness look at the financing and support given to the city council to see whether it can be increased?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 3:05 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, I am tempted to say to Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull: “Welcome to the party.” They are just behind a lot of the north of England in what is happening. I endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that the lockdowns are, at best, only partially effective.

I want to look at the questions of where the transmission is coming from and where the primary sources of the transmission are. It is being said that the main source of transition is within households—the noble Lord just mentioned 83%—and that is not surprising. If a couple is living together, or with children, and one of them gets infected, it is not surprising that the infection spreads within that household. But that is not the primary source of infection; a household that is completely isolated will not be infected at all. The infections are coming from other places where people meet together outside. It seems that the evidence for households and families being specifically targeted by the Government is not as strong as people think.

There are essentially three elements to this: there is the economy, and the Government say the economy has to go on; there is education, and the Government say education has to go on; and there is normal society—ordinary families living their normal lives in normal ways. They are the people who, right from the beginning, way back in spring of this year, seem to have been hit hardest. It hits individual people—single people, relatives, grandparents, aunties and so on—and it hits the way in which families operate. Where a couple of friends or sisters share the shopping or the collection of kids from school, they are being told they cannot do this anymore unless they are a specific linked household. That is very restrictive, because one of the households has to be a single adult household.

Some people are saying that household parties are the problem, and I suspect that that is a far greater problem than the ordinary life of ordinary households. But I have been trying to find out where the evidence is for all this, and it is very difficult to find. The leader of Birmingham City Council says that households are the problem and the Government say that households are the problem. I am not brilliant at searching the internet, but I have been looking for all the evidence—I have been looking at the Joint Biosecurity Centre evidence—and I do not find anything. I have been looking at the GOV.UK testing data that comes out every week; it is very thorough, but it does not tell me that households and ordinary families are the real problem. While infection within households is inevitably going to take place, infection between households, and among the slightly wider family, may not be the cause of what is going on to anything like the extent being made out.

Meanwhile, members of families of different generations, or sisters and brothers of the same generation and their families, are unable to mix in a normal way —people say that it is socially, but it is not just socially; it also relates to the normal way that families operate and work. The inability of people who are strictly obeying the rules—I have to say that a lot of people are not—to do this, is causing a huge amount of distress, illness, isolation and unhappiness, which cannot be in the interests of the children in these families. I challenge that families and households are the fundamental problem.

Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 3:10 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, particularly with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, with whom I share a birthday—I know this because every year I check the columns of the Times to see his name in lights and mine ignored.

At some point with coronavirus regulations, whether local or national, the penny will drop with the Government and they will see that the emperor is wearing no clothes. It has become quite apparent that we cannot eradicate this virus and it will not be over by Christmas. We must find a way to live our lives as normally as possible. As noble Lords have been saying from the beginning of this debate—and no doubt in the preceding debate—nobody can really work out how these regulations are meant to work or why they are being imposed in the way that they are; nobody can work out why a wedding can have 15 people but a funeral 30; and nobody can tell me what on earth a bubble is. If my noble friend the Minister can tell me, I will ask her also to solve Fermat’s last theorem for me.

Noble Lord after noble Lord has talked about the impact on Birmingham. I want to briefly concentrate on the cultural infrastructure of Birmingham, which I know a bit about and which is, to coin a phrase, world-beating. Today, I am delighted that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is reopening after being closed for quite a time—and reopening with a fanfare and optimism that has been far too lacking for far too long. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a pretty remarkable place. It is of course the home of the Pre-Raphaelites, but it also recently appointed Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid as the co-chief executives. Two people of colour heading an institution is sadly remarkable, as only one in 45 of our national museums is currently headed by a person of colour.

The Birmingham Opera Company is showing optimism by commissioning a production of Wagner next year, hoping that things will be over by then. Birmingham Rep is the largest commissioning repertory theatre outside of London, but has had to cancel 16 productions. The Birmingham Hippodrome is the largest theatre in the whole of the UK, home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, now headed by the remarkable Carlos Acosta. Sadly, the Birmingham Hippodrome has cancelled Christmas, but is planning new productions next year.

I am delighted that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has not yet had to make any staff redundant. In terms of adapting and innovating—as the Chancellor himself noted yesterday—it did a fantastic concert from a factory in Longbridge that has now been seen online 150,000 times. It was conducted by Simon Rattle and of course featured the world-famous cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Yesterday, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra did a performance of Holst’s “Planets” suite in Centenary Square—as happened in Parliament Square yesterday as well—but did only 20% of that performance, to highlight the fact that freelance musicians can secure only 20% of their income.

These organisations, like, we know, arts organisations all over the country, are being decimated. They need the help and support of government, but they also need a clear road map to get back to doing what they do best.

Birmingham is a vibrant, successful and prosperous city. It would have been even more prosperous if the Minister and I could have been there this week at the Tory party conference, which sadly had to be held virtually but would have introduced £16 million into the local economy. Can the Minister perhaps update us on the prospects for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 and the impact of lockdown on that? I know, for example, that the preparations for HS2, the West Midlands Metro extension and the Paradise office development are all going ahead, which is cause for optimism.

I echo the comments of noble Lords who spoke before me: we need more local decision-makers and visionary leaders involved in determining how to impose appropriate health regulations during the pandemic. We need to keep the schools open, we need to remove the curfew and we need to give Birmingham as much support as possible, particularly since Birmingham is helping itself where it can, not least by Aston Villa beating Liverpool 7-2 at the weekend.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 3:15 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of this SI. I want to make a couple of points.

The restrictions imposed by this statutory instrument can protect the people of Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull only if the test and trace system that runs alongside it is reliable. Some 16,000 infectious people across the country being missed off the national test and trace dashboard, with their tens of thousands of contacts still to be traced, makes another huge dent in people’s confidence in the system. I see that the restrictions imposed by this instrument have to be reviewed every two weeks and that the last review was on 29 September, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said. That date falls in the week when those thousands of contacts were missed because of the Excel error. Is the Minister confident that the conclusions of that review of cases are accurate with hindsight? Given the ongoing problems with the centralised system of test and trace, does she see any merit in the calls by many local authority leaders, referred to by my noble friend Lord Hunt, for test and trace to be far more locally based? Is there enough testing capacity in the centre of Birmingham, given the closure, as I understand it, of the Edgbaston site in the summer? How does the Minister see Birmingham City Council’s drop and collect testing service progressing? Does it have enough resources to complete this important initiative?

My second point is about communications. The message is obviously not getting through, despite the valiant efforts of strong local leadership in the West Midlands. Birmingham people say they are baffled, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, by the new restrictions and how they operate. The message that transmission within the home is dangerous, which I am sure is the message that the Government want to put out there, is not being heard. From the serious rise in cases in a city that I know well and represented for 15 years, it is easy to see how Birmingham’s reaction to the Government’s often mixed and muddled communications on restrictions is an echo of the compliance-weariness and lack of trust in authority that have set in across the country, especially among young people. It is my personal heresy that that lack of trust can be carbon-dated, certainly among young people, from a spring tour of the north by a certain Mr Dominic Cummings. However, we are where we are, as they say, and for this SI to work alongside the penalties regime attached to it, the Government’s communication strategy must be crystal clear and reflect the rich diversity of modern Birmingham, modern Sandwell and modern Solihull, or things will be very much worse very soon. None of us wants that.

Photo of Lord Bhatia Lord Bhatia Non-affiliated 3:20 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, after seeing cases in the West Midlands continue to rise, the Government, in collaboration with local leaders, had to take the decision to ban households mixing in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull. It is difficult for any Government to take such drastic steps, but that is what any responsible Government have to do. Such regulations affect many businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry, where many restaurants and bars will suffer. The most affected are the employees, whose incomes are decimated. Their families suddenly become poor and some become homeless as they are unable to pay their rents. Local government has to find them temporary accommodation in hotels and private properties.

The domino effect of these new rules to save lives from Covid-19 will affect individuals, businesses and the finances of local government. There are no easy answers to this. Saving lives must take priority over economics. The only hope is finding a vaccine, which seems to be a few months away. In the meantime, the Chancellor has to provide extra funding for the unemployed, local authorities and small businesses. Can the Minister estimate what extra funding the Treasury will have to give to reduce the effect of these new rules?

Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat 3:21 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, each time regulations of this type are scrutinised, it gives us a short opportunity to explore surrounding issues that catch the eye, even though local lockdown measures are now, regrettably, far from novel. Something that caught my eye today was in paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, about data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre:

“The data also indicated that household transmission, either within the household or due to transmission between households, constituted a high proportion of COVID-19 transmissions”.

Frankly, I find that a little unhelpful, since obviously someone is from either my household or another household. How is it known where the transmission took place? Locking households down implies that it is within home-to-home visits, but is that known to be true? I heard what the Minister said, but how is that knowledge acquired, so that we know it was not somewhere else? I concur with the comments of my noble friend Lord Greaves.

The director of public health for Birmingham has given what is perhaps a theoretical explanation, which the House of Lords Library quoted in its useful briefing. He says that in pubs, restaurants and elsewhere, there is social distancing, sanitising, cleaning and risk assessments that are not done in the more relaxed environment of the home. Even with that explanation, I still consider that the degree of lockdown on households and highly restricted definitions for linked homes—particularly for childcare, as I have raised before—are too strict when set alongside other freedoms outside the home. It cannot be right that the only way to get stand-in help with children might be to go down the pub.

However, building on the point about risk assessment and controls in venues such as pubs and restaurants, it seems that the curfew has created more problems than it solves, especially in city centres when everyone leaves at once in a crowd. What risk assessments have been done about that? What about all the other pubs and restaurants that are far from thronged? The curfew also flies in the face of the basic premise for household lockdowns, because those other venues are safer, sanitised and socially distanced. Additionally, publicans tend to be careful of their licences. They do not need crippling fines, on top of shutdown costs and Covid safety measures, to make them behave responsibly.

On another matter, in the Sunday Times and since, there have been quotes about infection rates in different parts of the country, with it being pointed out that the seats of top Tories seemed to have avoided lockdown, despite having infection levels higher than those in other areas in lockdown. Setting aside political suspicions, I can probably think of other variables that sometimes might be at play: wealthier places might have lower housing density and less crowding—the kinds of things that the local authority might know well and feed in. Whether or not there are excuses, it is disturbing that there is now a new kind of discrimination, hitting hardest at areas where people are least able to withstand the hardships of lockdown and where the fines are so grossly disproportionate to income. I am not against the Government trying out containment measures, but there must not be discrimination, and greater attempts should be made at gaining public consent—it has gone best when that has happened.

Finally, Birmingham, like Pendle, as my noble friend Lord Greaves has reminded us on previous occasions, aimed to get a handle on infections through mass testing, regardless of symptoms. I congratulate it on that, which, regrettably, is more than I can say for national testing. As has been said from the start, mass testing is the way forward, so when are the cheap 15-minute tests that are available in the US coming to the UK? Other countries are ordering them in.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:26 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This debate covers a particular set of rules in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull. What I am about to say is guided by what Green Party councillors in the area have shared with me about what their constituents have told them and about the problems raised with them.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty is communication. Many people, for entirely comprehensible reasons, do not understand the reasons for the restrictions or why it is okay for people to go to another household to work but not for social reasons. This lack of understanding often leads to a lack of compliance, either intentionally or unintentionally.

I understand that there is evidence of a real risk of greater transmission within households than in public venues, where people tend to be more careful and businesses have an interest in providing a Covid-secure environment, but that is not being carefully and soberly explained. Understandably, if people feel that something is senseless, they either give up or descend into confusion, trying to do the right thing but without understanding what that is or why. The gaping chasm of government communications failure is being filled by often dangerous misinformation. What is lacking is calm, realistic, sensible, evidenced communication through national channels—not boosterism but balance.

There are also clear and obvious inequality issues that the Government need to acknowledge and seek to mitigate. People who can afford to go to a restaurant or café will be able to continue to meet family and friends, whereas those on lower incomes might be unable to do so. There is some hope of libraries being a resource for this purpose, but that obviously potentially clashes with other uses requiring quiet and is a very limited resource. What consideration have the Government given to providing resources to councils? Given the already extreme pressures on them from so many different directions, they will need extra resources to provide free, managed spaces in which groups of people can meet. Do the Government still have a loneliness tsar? Have they been consulted and involved?

There have also been significant difficulties with informal childcare arrangements. The initial guidance did not allow for friends and family members to look after children; only registered childminders were still allowed to do so, and that caused working parents a great deal of stress and worry. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, about this at the time, and I thank him for writing to me after the guidelines had been changed to allow this, but this is the sort of thing that should and could have been sorted out from the start, before anything was announced or done.

Communication is not the only problem—constant changes to the rules and guidelines also clearly are. Many noble Lords feel as though we are becoming a recording but, if we had proper procedures for introducing rules and debating them, and we were able to consider and examine them, we could set up a stable national framework, as my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb said in an earlier debate today.

Another concern from residents has been that, for those at higher risk and previously shielding, their garden provides a more easily controlled and potentially safer environment for them to meet family and friends, compared to public spaces. The rules on gardens do not make much sense—although of course many do not have that option.

Informal communications from police officers indicate that these rules are almost impossible to enforce in any meaningful way. The problem we keep coming back to is that laws, guidance and suggestions from the Government, sometimes seemingly thrown out at random, have all been mixed up—“informing on the neighbours” is a particular problem.

New Zealand introduced a four-level alert system on 21 March. Obviously, I am looking from a great distance, and there have been mistakes in that nation’s management of Covid-19, which were quickly acknowledged and fixed, but there has also been clear public understanding of the arrangements, the reasons for them and a very high level of compliance.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, the Government must get on the front foot against the virus. Part of that must be a clear framework, laws that apply chiefly to businesses and institutions, well-evidenced and well-explained guidance for individual and group behaviour, and a systematic approach and framework that is flexibly exercised according to local circumstances. Local decision-making must be key, but we need sensible guidance from the centre.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 3:31 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, these regulations relate to the associated departmental document entitled West Midlands: Local Restrictions, published on 11 September. Under the heading

“Schools and colleges (face coverings)”, it sets out face covering requirements in educational establishments in the West Midlands. This requirement, limited to educational establishments, does not go far enough.

I have been arguing in this House for widespread masking since 11 March this year. While I greatly welcome the Statement from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell —who unfortunately has not been in his place today—who in his sincere and ever-courteous way provided assurances on further consideration of mask valving, which I shall return to in the coming weeks, he has not yet been able on behalf of the Government to concede the broader case for mask wearing in the wider environment. I know he is under pressure from all sides to be careful in making concessions, but the Government have embarked on a fundamentally flawed approach. The general policy on limited mask wearing should be completely reviewed. Until then, I shall remain the House bore on the subject.

Let us go back to basics. Why wear a mask? The case for the mask is to protect ourselves and others. There is a mass of debating material and data on the internet worldwide, both supportive and challenging, and I have read a lot of it. In summary, the case turns on the primary issues of the efficacy of mask wearing—in other words, whether they work—mask design and the issue of valves, cost and supply, the perceived benefits and experience of people in South Korea, Taiwan and other areas of the Far East, and the effect of the precautionary principle on personal conduct. I shall concentrate on this latter issue today.

If you walk down a street and everyone is masking, you tend to believe you are part of a collective effort, breeding confidence and security. The mask not only acts to reassure you that a collective effort is in place but, more importantly, concentrates the individual mind on the reasons behind the collective action. It alerts you almost subliminally to the possible dangers of contamination and spread. The mask is a constant reminder. The value is in the collective response; it fosters a herd instinct in favour of precautionary actions.

I feel that officials have failed to grasp that. Admittedly, early on they had valid concerns over supply and priority usage. I understand all that, but those are the considerations of the past. Furthermore, we need to consider the American experience. Trump is perversely making my case. Once he himself had contracted the virus, he soon cast aside his distorted concepts of liberty and freedom, unleashing a national discussion over mask wearing. Sanity is taking over. We now have a genuine debate on masks state-wide, with the voice of reason no longer subject to national ridicule.

I appeal to Ministers to reopen within the department the whole discussion on mandatory mask wearing, with appropriate exemptions. I know that there are issues of individual freedom, which many Conservatives hold very dear to their hearts. I listened to the very interesting speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, yesterday, which indicated that concern. However, this winter we will pay a heavy price if the wrong decisions are taken, and I believe it is vital now that we take a crucial decision on mandatory mask wearing in a far wider environment.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 3:36 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, we have already heard reference to the good example of New Zealand, where in the forthcoming weeks the Bledisloe Cup between the All Blacks and Australia will be played out in Wellington. Tickets are on sale and a large crowd will be in attendance. New Zealand, the country which has been given many plaudits, has been perhaps the most efficient and effective at dealing with coronavirus.

The city of Birmingham’s partner cities in Germany are Frankfurt and Leipzig. Leipzig was the first Bundesliga team to take part in the German experimentation of crowds going to football matches in a safe, Covid-insured environment, and it has been doing so for around two months. The limitation is 20%. That means that in Frankfurt there will be slightly higher attendance than in Leipzig, while in Dortmund, the largest stadium in Germany, at 20% they are getting crowds of over 10,000, 11,000 or 12,000. We can view it on our televisions if we wish. I have done that to watch how the crowd is operating, and they are doing so with efficiency. The statistics are also there.

The statistics are also there in Hungary. Since July, crowds at outdoor football matches have been allowed, at a much higher density than in Germany, and Ferencvárosi, its leading team, has played repeatedly and successfully in the Champions League, with major matches coming up in the near future. The Hungarian Government have been confident enough to allow even away supporters to attend such matches.

We have major teams in the city of Birmingham; Aston Villa is having its most successful period for many decades. Some might say that they have benefited from the adherence to the two-metre rule by the Liverpool defence—which has also spread across the north-west of Manchester. One should commend those defenders for their approach.

However, I put it to the Minister that the morale to get us through to next summer in the city of Birmingham, like other parts of the country, would be greatly and safely enhanced if for outdoor sports there were consistency in who goes—that is, not with away supporters —defined bubbles within the crowd, which is what is happening in Germany, and the ability to use the contact tracing app should there be an outbreak. That would be a morale boost in every sense: a mental health boost well beyond those who managed to get in and be in attendance. We could and should have experimented this summer at Edgbaston in Birmingham, with a five-day test match with a well-defined plan within the outdoors to allow people to attend over the five days. I put it to the Minister that that could and would have been safely executed.

Frankly, my experience of going into town and city centres is that the organisation would happen in outdoor sports arenas such as Villa Park, St Andrew’s, Edgbaston and the Hawthorns, in the area covered by this government proposal. I do not demur from the Government’s approach in bringing this in, but flexibility in terms of outdoor venues will be essential. We should not hold back from emulating what New Zealand, Germany and Hungary have successfully done, particularly with the twin towns of Frankfurt and Leipzig as exemplars. If they can do it, we can—and safely. We will be also able to use their evaluation of their results to see how safe this will remain in future.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 3:41 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, this has been a very fascinating debate that has been very educational for me, with perceptive comments from colleagues from all sides of the House. I address this issue from the perspective of someone living in the West Midlands—in Solihull, to be precise—just like the confirmed Brummies, the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Hunt, who are from that region.

Like many people in Solihull, Sandwell and Birmingham, I greatly miss being able to visit my mum, my daughter, my grandchildren and my friends in their or my home. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made a very good point: I can see my family outside, but there are many families in that area who do not have the ability to do so because of the financial cost, and they are suffering.

However, it is what it is. Some of the themes that we have covered today have really struck me, such as the inconsistencies between Covid rates and lockdown. The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Vaizey, and my noble friends Lord Greaves and Lady Bowles have all raised that issue, and I am sure the Minister will enlighten us as to the logic behind some of these issues. Another theme was the question of why local leaders cannot be involved in lockdown decisions. That is really important when local knowledge is so vital in this area. The noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Vaizey—the latter gave us a lot of information about the cultural virtuosity of Birmingham, which was very welcome—talked about that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, talked about the effectiveness of test and trace and about locally based communications. Why is it that people get confused over what the actual lockdown rules are? Communication of information to our own people locally is vital and is better managed from the local area rather than centrally.

Local businesses have of course been impacted, and the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, made a plea to understand how a lot of businesses, particularly in the Birmingham area, are all going to be saved in this situation. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made the case for masks and promised us that he is going to become the House bore until we all wear them. Well, the noble Lord is welcome to bore us to death; I think that that is a really good idea.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, talked about football and crowds, what can be achieved when things are properly managed, and helping us with our morale, which is so important—not necessarily on my part though, when Aston Villa play Liverpool, but I am not going to go into that painful moment.

Earlier on today, I came in on a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about the cost to the taxpayer of implementing food hygiene ratings in food premises. Here is a way to obviate those costs: empower inspectors to conduct dual inspections. While they are doing food hygiene inspections—and the Minister looked very positive at the idea of making food inspections mandatory—why not do a Covid compliance inspection at the same time? Given some of the hostelries I visited in my area, right now I would be more interested to know what their Covid rating was, rather than food hygiene, before I actually venture through their doors.

Finally, while I accept the logic of additional restrictions in particularly afflicted areas, I would like to make a plea on behalf of all families with small children. We have heard from several noble Lords today how much families are suffering. As there is no evidence that small children can spread the virus, could they not be exempt from the rule of six? Certainly, that would bring greater harmony between all the nations of the United Kingdom and bring greater happiness to families in England.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 3:47 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, the Minister will be pleased to know that I am not going to speak for very long, partly because on this side we seem to have the Birmingham experts in the House. My noble friends Lord Rooker, Lord Hunt and Lady Crawley are all from the Birmingham area. My noble friend Lady Crawley did not say so but, of course, she was a Member of the European Parliament for the Birmingham area for many years. I think they have raised many of the pertinent questions that the Minister will have to address.

First, I think the Minister herself mentioned that 8 October—tomorrow—was the review of this statutory instrument, and I thought, why are we not talking about the review? Would that not be relevant? Would it not be more relevant for us to have a discussion about the review of this statutory instrument and what happens in the future, rather than the arid process we are going through, yet again, of discussing a statutory instrument which was put in place weeks ago and has been there for several weeks? It is now about to be reviewed, and we will not know what that review is, unless we go on the Government’s website at some point and have a look to see what it says. That is my very first question: would it not be more relevant, now that we have all these restrictions in place around the country, and make more sense for us to discuss the reviews of those, rather than looking backwards all the time? I also think it is a relevant question for the West Midlands for us to learn about the other forebears, as my noble friend Lord Hunt raised.

I also echo the issue that my noble friend Lord Hunt raised, of the Minister yesterday—in the discussion on the Statement—talking about the relationship between local government leaders and the Government in terms of restrictions and local lockdowns. I was actually about to quote the Hansard that my noble friend Lord Hunt quoted. I was very struck and did not think it was a respectful way to address the issue of the relationship with local leaders; I thought it was patronising. I know that the Minister actually said in his closing remarks that he may have struck the wrong tone—well, he did strike the wrong tone.

These leaders—the four who wrote the letter to the Secretary of State yesterday and the leader of Birmingham Council—deserve respect and support. These are the people who know their communities; they, along with their public health leads, should be given the resources to help run local testing and tracing, which we advocated when we put through the emergency legislation in March. That is not to say that there is no need for mass testing, but it needs to be given equal priority with the local drive, and that is not what has happened.

As other noble Lords said, the communication links between local areas, the public health authorities and the Government have not always worked. I think Birmingham is a good example of where there have been tireless efforts, certainly by the authorities there, to make sure that this works and they are doing their best. We know that it is still not working, as it is not in other parts of the country, but we know that it is not as bad as in other parts of the country, and we need to understand why.

I want to add a couple of other questions. How much enforcement has been necessary? As I always ask when we are discussing these regulations, how many fines have been administered, and for what? Finally, echoing what other noble Lords have said, cities such as Birmingham and the others involved in this have some of our poorest communities and our most overcrowded communities in them. It is important that resources are made available to those communities to make sure that they can help fight this virus.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:53 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to the debate, and I would like to get straight to addressing the points raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the surrounding areas in the West Midlands and whether we were looking at those, too. They get reviewed because there is travel between them. Wolverhampton was added to the protected area of these regulations on 22 September, so we will continue to look at local transmission rates.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Barker, Lady Crawley and Lady Burt, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and many others asked what lessons we have learned from previous lockdowns, what figures we used for the decision to go into lockdown and the path out of lockdown, and about inconsistency between different areas. I know this might be frustrating for noble Lords, but there is not a single figure for the decision to go into or come out of a local lockdown. There is not a single threshold, but the decision takes into account positivity rates, incidence rates, patterns of transmission and the rate of increase in those rates. There is not a single figure that informs that.

The Secretary of State keeps the necessity for these regulations under constant review; he is obliged to review it every 14 days, and I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that the first review has taken place. That was at the end of September. The date of 8 October was for the second review, and these regulations will last for up to six months, unless they are revoked before then as a consequence of one of the fortnightly reviews by the Secretary of State.

The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, asked about the impact of the missing test results on the outcome of the previous review. As the previous review was on whether to keep additional restrictions in Birmingham in place or revoke them, and rates in Birmingham have either remained similar or gone up a bit, additional test results would not impact the outcome of that review. I also point out that the Chief Medical Officer has said that, overall, the impact of those missing test results has not so far changed our analysis of the virus and our response to it.

Many noble Lords raised the question of local co-operation. It is right that we will be effective in these local lockdowns only if we work with local leaders and experts. As noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that has been the case here. It is a good lesson for the future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, also asked whether we have learned from previous local lockdowns. That is an ongoing process. The noble Baroness referred to the local lockdown in Leicester, and there is a published review of the impact of the measures there, Rapid Stocktake of Lessons Learnt and Good Practice in the Management of Local Covid-19 Outbreaks. That review has informed the contain framework, which I referred to in my opening remarks, which is used for decision-making on local restrictions.

Alongside local decision-making, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett, Lady Burt and Lady Thornton, raised the question of local funding, drawing on local expertise and ensuring that expertise has access to funding to implement local action. That is absolutely right. It is why we have made £300 million available to local authorities for their local outbreak plans. In addition, £100 million of surge funding is available for local authorities to bid for, particularly if they are in a local lockdown area and may need to take further measures. That money is in addition to the £3.7 billion of un-ring-fenced funding for local authorities to deal with Covid pressures. Areas affected by the local lockdown in the West Midlands have received £142 million from the un-ring-fenced funding to local authorities. They have also received £3.3 million from the test and trace surge funding. I am afraid I do not have the figure for what they have received from the £300 million funding for initial test and trace. I do not want noble Lords to think the £3.3 million is the only funding they have received to respond to local outbreaks.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Thornton, raised enforcement. Unfortunately for the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I cannot give the exact figures for enforcement in Birmingham. The collection of that data is ongoing. The guidance on fixed penalty notices is that enforcement officers should take an approach based on the four Es—engage, explain, encourage, then enforce. In the first instance, engaging and explaining, rather than using fixed penalty notices, might be the correct approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, asked about household transmission. I reassure noble Lords that this is not the view just of central government, but of local government leaders and directors of public health. Local authorities and directors of public health have access to much more granular data than is publicly available and, rightly, sign data protection agreements in order to access it. There is consensus across the local area that this is the source of transmission in this case.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Burt, raised the impact of these restrictions on people, in their well-being and mental health. The Government take that seriously. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked about increased funding, which I have touched on. She also asked whether there is still a Minister for Loneliness. I can reassure her that the Minister for Loneliness is my noble friend Lady Barran at DCMS.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also made a point about how this legislation has been subsequently amended to make provision for informal childcare arrangements. That is an example of the Government listening to scrutiny and feedback in this House and from leaders in Birmingham, who made that case strongly, so action was taken.

I reassure my noble friend Lord Vaizey that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham are on track and on budget for delivery in 2022. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about the morale-boosting prospects of allowing spectators at outdoor sports. I know that DCMS takes this incredibly seriously and is working with sporting bodies to look at what we can do about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked about masks. I reassure him that I have listened to all his contributions on masks. He may be disappointed that my noble friend the Minister is not here, but I will take his comments back to my noble friend and I am sure that he will take them as seriously as he has so far.

Several noble Lords raised the question of the 10 pm curfew. I know that noble Lords can be sceptical of the Government’s view, so perhaps the view of the local director of public health in Birmingham may be salient here. He has said:

“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” we wear face coverings. But comparing that to the restrictions in homes, which the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, raised:

“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”.

That is why we have taken the measures within households, not within pubs. The curfew is a measure that has been put in place in many other countries. It is in place in Madrid, Canada and the Netherlands. It is a measure by which we try to keep places open while reducing risky behaviour.

I conclude with a point raised by several noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, talked about discrimination. The Government would strongly disagree with that but the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, rightly said that local outbreaks can occur in areas that are more deprived and less resilient in dealing with them. That is not necessarily the case in the area covered by these restrictions. The reason the regulations cover Birmingham, Solihull and Sandwell is less because of a pattern of concentration, but that is a pattern we have seen elsewhere. It is something we take incredibly seriously. We have put huge amounts of resources into those areas, not just to contain those local outbreaks and use local expertise to do so but to provide support for people’s well-being, mental health and livelihoods, as we have to take those actions. I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.