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.