Speculation is mounting that restrictions – and possibly even a total ban – on wedding receptions could be on their way to Birmingham and the Black Country.
Local leaders have identified after-wedding parties as a problem area that is driving up cases between families and friends.
Birmingham’s council leader Cllr Ian Ward said cases transmitted through the hospitality sector – in pubs, restaurants and cafes – was minimal.
“Exposures through eating out, hospitality and entertainment account for just 2% of contacts (of positive cases),” he said on Friday.
“If there is an issue it appears to be celebrations, particularly wedding receptions, where people cannot resist the urge to congratulate the bride and groom, and when that happens and hands are shaken we see transmission of the virus.”
We understand that message has been hammered with government officials during discussions about restrictions on the hospitality sector.
If – and this is by no means certain – Birmingham and neighbouring areas with high infection rates are deemed ‘high risk’, or ‘tier two’, such a ban could be part of a package of new measures.
Also widely predicted is a ban on people meeting up socially from lots of different households in pubs and restaurants – which would mean a change to the existing ‘rule of six’.
The current national ‘rule of six’ means individuals from as many as six different households could meet up in a pub, cafe or park – and that, say local officials, is unhelpful when the main problem here is around household transmission.
They would prefer to see those encounters limited to people from no more than two households.
There is frustration locally that conversations between local politicians and the Department of Health have been opaque, with officials giving little away about what is coming.
Birmingham’s MPs are furious that they still have no idea what new restrictions – if any – are in store for the city and region.
Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, speaking yesterday, said the Government did not appear to have a clear plan for the region, despite days of discussions – or if they did, they weren’t sharing that with local leaders.
“I have no idea what is going to happen next and that’s woeful. I don’t think they give a toss what we think.”
Fellow city MP Liam Byrne, representing Hodge Hill, said the chaos caused by leaks, anonymous briefings and delay was potentially catastrophic for lives and livelihoods.
“It has become impossible to have any faith in what is going to come next,” he said.
And fellow Labour stalwart Jack Dromey, Erdington, said the voice of Birmingham “is not being heard on crucial decisions.
“In common with the great cities of the north on what happens next, decisions that should be taken in Town Hall are being made in Whitehall.”
Mayor Andy Street was this morning keeping his counsel but we know he has been involved in daily exchanges with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, pressing the case for few, if any, new restrictions for the region and for it not to be deemed in need of more interventions.
A case is also being made locally for the second tier – or high risk grading – to be sub divided into Tier 2a and Tier 2b. The higher of these would include more restrictions on pubs and restaurants; the lower would have a limited impact on the sector.
Cllr Ward told a meeting on Friday: “We are urging the Government to introduce an approach that better reflects the data and takes less of a sledgehammer approach to the hospitality sector – by effectively introducing Tiers 2a and 2b.”
The city’s specialist wedding venues and banqueting halls, and their suppliers and associated businesses, have been drastically affected by Covid secure rules and bans on large gatherings.
The impact has been felt especially in areas where the summer tradition of large Asian weddings and celebrations is the lifeblood of the community.
Shopkeepers in Alum Rock and Bordesley Green, for example, have told us how trade has been decimated by the restrictions.
But the rules, designed to restrict transmission, have also been flouted with impunity by some venues.
Police and councils have issued enforcement notices against some venues where large gatherings have been alerted, while others have been warned about their actions.
The local consensus is that, with some exceptions, existing measures are working on keeping on top of the virus, and that the focus now must be on a rapidly improved test, trace and isolate regime led by local public health teams.
In Birmingham, testing uptake has been increasing, but so too has the positivity rate (the proportion of people tested found to be positive). It is currently at a worryingly high 9.1%.
Among the city’s scientists and testing experts, the vital role of Test and Trace and the need for a massive upturn in testing is deemed crucial.
Prof KK Cheng, Director of the Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham, has been sharing his insights on Twitter, warning: “In hotspots, if hospitality doesn’t shut soon many other businesses would have to before too long as the epidemic grows. Government should support pubs and restaurants as they ‘take one for the country’.”
He has also pressed the case that a reformed Test, Trace and Isolate scheme is vital.
He said today: “We’ve a fighting chance of keeping most things open and having no lockdown this winter with:
● Improved Find, Test, Trace, Isolate, Support
●Sensible social distancing
●High usage of masks
●Good communication and public trust
Meanwhile, the University of Birmingham has now opened a testing analysis lab as part of measures to increase capacity – the first of a series of new labs to support the commercial test and trace operations.
Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull and Wolverhampton are currently subject to local restrictions banning visitors in homes and gardens. Infection rates have remained consistently high since, but the figures have been skewed by an insurgence of students.
Some 476 positive cases were reported in a week among Birmingham’s student population, as we reported here.
Walsall, not currently subject to those restrictions but experiencing high infection rates, is widely expected to join them today.
Current infection rates are: Birmingham, 167 cases per 100,000 people; Solihull, 141; Walsall, 137; Coventry, 129; Sandwell, 123; Wolverhampton, 100; Dudley, 79.