People wearing masks in Solihull town centre (Image: Darren Quinton/Birmingham Live)
By Jane Haynes
Birmingham’s rate of infection has gone up to more than 62 in a dramatic surge that means tough new restrictions could be imminent. An alarming rise in coronavirus infections in Birmingham means local leaders are now facing a battle to prevent lockdown. Mayor Andy Street and public health and council chiefs are in discussions to work out a way forward.
The move comes as overnight updates revealed the city’s infection rate is now at 62.4 per 100,000 people. That means 712 people caught the virus in the seven days up to Saturday. That’s twice the rate that sent the city onto the national watch list last month and means it is now on the brink.
Despite tough warnings, more walk-in testing, local tracing efforts and a crackdown on retail and hospitality venues flouting guidance, cases have continued to spiral and there is no sign of a slowdown. Solihull too is heading in the same direction, reporting 99 new cases, with a rate of 46.1 cases per 100,000 people.
Neighbouring Sandwell, once deemed at highest risk of a local lockdown, is currently faring much better after containing outbreaks at local factories and workplaces. The infection rate there is now down to 22.6 per 100,000 people. But the upward trajectory in Birmingham appears unrelenting. The majority of cases are among those aged 20 to 39, with private indoor gatherings at home seen as the biggest cause of transmission between people.
Birmingham City Council has urged people to stop meeting up at home unless essential. A council spokesperson said: “It is important to reiterate that all of us have to be alert, maintain social distancing outside of the houses we live in and limit the numbers when we visit other people’s houses, as this is where it appears we are seeing the infection spreading most.”
The news could not have come at a worst time as the city recovers from the shock of multiple stabbings which left one young man dead and seven injured. A struggling national test and trace service, with drive-through and walk-in testing services overwhelmed by demand, is not helping the situation. Mayor Andy Street described the situation as “very concerning.”
He is now liaising with public health chiefs and council chiefs to drill into the data to help work out what to do next. The rising numbers of tests is matched by a rise in positivity – this is the proportion of people tested who are positive. The rate has doubled, from 3% to 6%. We are now seeing rapid acceleration, after being in a reasonably stable position,” the mayor told BirminghamLive.
“This is every single individual’s responsibility, and as a city we have not been doing well enough. Anyone who thinks this disease is less virulent or serious is wrong – that is utter delusion. It is just as dangerous and people need to heed the guidance.”
He would not be drawn on the likelihood of lockdown measures by the weekend, except to say that measures would be decided collaboratively between local leaders and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Should new measures be needed, it was imperative the city and region did not endure the ‘confusion’ that had so dismayed local leaders in Greater Manchester, which went into lockdown late on a Friday night via a tweeted message from Hancock, he said.
“There is not a rate or number that means lockdown,” he said, when asked if a rate so far above 50 would make local lockdown measures a certainty. “In Northampton for example it was over 100 but they did not require lockdown measures,” he said.
But Northampton’s outbreak last month was centred on a single major outbreak at a workplace. Once that was contained the rise receded. By contrast, Birmingham is facing clusters of small outbreaks across the city. What’s especially alarming is that the data only goes up to Friday – meaning the impact of schools reopening and the return of tens of thousands of university students back to the city has not even played a part yet.
We reported yesterday how hundreds of pupils were sent home as schools across the city enacted quarantine guidelines, sending year groups home as soon as they were informed about a single positive case among them. The picture in Birmingham is being repeated across the country, with steep rises reported nationally.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has implored young people to stick to the rules as Covid-19 infections in the UK rose to their highest levels since early May. It is not known why case rates are higher among young people, but England-level data shows they are rising steeply.
His deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van Tam warned last night that people have “relaxed too much” over the summer and “we have got to start taking this very seriously again”. The news is a massive blow to the city after it appeared to have arrested an August spike. The response could see new restrictive rules, backed up by enforcement activity. Two particular sources of local outbreaks – households visiting each other, and people sharing cars – are likely to come under special scrutiny as they are seen to be contributing most to rising cases.
This graph (below) clearly shows the number of cases going up rapidly. The orange line represents the daily cases reported via the NHS Test and Trace system in Birmingham. In a statement yesterday, Birmingham City Council said the majority of cases are linked to private household gatherings, primarily indoors at someone’s house.
“The majority of new cases in Birmingham identified over the last week have been in the 20-39 age group and we have seen rise across all ethnic groups. It is important to reiterate that all of us have to be alert, maintain social distancing outside of the houses we live in and limit the numbers when we visit other people’s houses as this is where it appears we are seeing the infection spreading most.”
What we know about what’s happening in Birmingham
The city has been on an upward curve since early August, when infection rates began to rise and, for the first time since the height of the pandemic, infection rates in excess of 30 cases per 100,000 people were recorded consistently. As a result the city was placed on the Government’s national watch list as an area requiring enhanced support. This placed it one category below those cities and towns in ‘local lockdown’ – but it was clear this would be a temporary reprieve if the rate did not fall quickly.
Over the next fortnight, the rate fell away, dropping back down to the mid-20s. Even on Friday, at a regional briefing hosted by mayor Andy Street, there was some optimism that the measures introduced might have triggered a turnaround. But that relief was shortlived. Over the weekend data from the latter part of the week revealed that in Birmingham and neighbouring Solihull, infection rates were rising fast.
Scores of small outbreaks – many among families and friends meeting up at home – are driving Birmingham’s coronavirus infection rates to potentially catastrophic levels that could leave the city in lockdown.
Where are the hotspots right now in Birmingham?
Springfield and Hall Green West – 27 cases
Attwood Green and Park Central – 24 cases
Wake Green East and Moseley Bog – 21 cases
Balsall Heath East – 15 cases
Ward End and Bromford West – 14 cases
Greet and Sparkhill South – 13 cases
Sparkhill North – 12 cases
Billesley Common – 12 cases
Acocks Green East – 11 cases
Moor Green and Cannon Hill – 10 cases
Winson Green and Gib Heath – 10 cases
Lozells East – 10 cases
Source: Birmingham Mail