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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 7th October 2020.

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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.