Some say the young are flouting the rules, others doubt the statistics. Most are anxious about what a lockdown will bring
If news that Birmingham was facing a local lockdown troubled drinkers around the Gas Street basin on Thursday afternoon, they were determined to forget it.
“This is the first time I’ve got dressed up and come to town,” said Pam, who didn’t want to give her full name, as she fluffed her pink hair. “I know what’s going on, I’ve worked in Covid wards. I’m not worried being here, but it does feel weird.”
Birmingham’s rate of infection jumped from 12 cases of Covid per 100,000 at the beginning of August – in line with the rate across England – to 32.1 per 100,000 last week. The UK’s second most populous city currently has the 13th highest infection rate in the country, with most places above it already in partial lockdown.
On Friday, the rate had dropped to 25.5, but amid mounting concern that public complacency was propelling the virus, Birmingham was added to a government watch list and officials asked its million residents to restrict visits in households to no more than two people. Visits to care homes were banned earlier in the month, and five new testing centres were promised across the city with plans to pilot a “drop and collect” delivery service of testing kits to those in need.
“We are at a knife-edge moment,” said Dr Justin Varney, Birmingham council’s director of public health. “The next five to 10 days are crucial. If we do [go into lockdown], it will be for at least two or three weeks and that will be devastating.” But what went so wrong?
“It’s young people,” insisted Paige Pell, 27, holding hands with her date – their first – as they sat on steps overlooking the canal. Pell, a mental health worker, blamed her own generation for the rise in Covid cases. “It’s the ignorance of those big social gatherings, people not taking it seriously and them having so many conspiracy theories,” she said.
More than half of Birmingham’s cases in the last week have come from the 18-34 age group. According to Ian Ward, the city council’s Labour leader, the data showed that Birmingham’s outbreaks had occurred in workplaces, gatherings in homes and a hospitality sector newly overwhelmed by the massive take up of the chancellor’s “eat out to help out” scheme.
“You can’t put your finger on a single area, business or community,” said Ward. “It is a general increase right across the city, across all ethnic groups. No one group is worse than others.”
“It’s depressing,” said Teresa Green, 59, walking through Brindleyplace, a modern canalside development, for the first time in months. “It’s like a ghost town.” Green and her husband Dominic, 62, and son James, 25, had ventured into the city centre from the suburbs for a family lunch and were shocked at the eerie quiet blanketing an area normally teeming with people. “People are out and about a lot more in Solihull [a town on Birmingham’s outskirts] because of eat out [to help out] and it’s come back to life there,” said James. “Coming here is a bit bleak.”
Most independent bars, cafes and restaurants along the square were shuttered, leaving just the national chains open to serve what would usually be heaving crowds on a bright, sunny afternoon.
“On the whole, Birmingham citizens have been responsible I think,” said Green, who works as a supply teacher in a deprived inner city ward. “Certain communities may not be as stringent as other communities – in the middle-class areas, people seem to take it more seriously – but it’s about education and targeting people because we don’t all watch or read the same things do we? I can teach children all day in school about eating healthily [for instance], but really that message needs to be directed at the parents putting a doughnut in their lunchboxes every day.”Effective messages were vital, agreed Samara Afzal, a GP from the west of the city. “It’s difficult because the government’s allowed all these things to happen – opening pubs, gyms, letting beaches get rammed and then restaurants doing this half-price thing and being packed. This [rise] had to have been expected,” she said. “It’s one thing putting the guidance in multiple languages but work has to be done to make sure communities trust the integrity of what is being said.”
On Ladypool Road in Sparkbrook, where a strip of restaurants and takeaways form part of the famous “Balti triangle”, business was thriving on Thursday evening. Customers queued on narrow pavements and face masks were conspicuous by their absence.
The area is among the 10% most deprived in England, and has the highest level of overcrowded housing, child poverty and unemployment rates in Birmingham. Decades of social neglect has left the residents with little trust in local and central government to care for the welfare of a predominantly working-class Muslim neighbourhood. Cynicism and suspicion among local residents, once the target of a notoriously controversial government surveillance programme, was rife.
“People here think the police and government have left them to die a slow death anyway so the virus doesn’t scare them as much,” said a newsagent, speaking in Punjabi and wary of giving his name.
“We look at what’s happened in the care homes. Why would anyone think they care about Pakistanis and Somalis here?”
Fadela Benselim, an Algerian migrant to Britain, was sitting across the road in Balsall Heath park with her Yemeni friends. “I do take the virus seriously but [isn’t there] less of it now?” she asked. Crowds in the park and on the streets of Sparkbrook didn’t worry her too much. “A lot of people also think whatever happens to them is God’s will,” she said.
In nearby Moseley, beer gardens and cafe patios were equally relaxed, with plenty of space obviously taken by people from several households meeting. “[Covid] is a lot of hype now,” said Jack Parr, 28. His table of four friends laughed. Parr attended an anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-5G rally in town a fortnight ago but insisted he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist. “I’ve got my own mind, I don’t just believe everything I’m told.”
But while the rate of infection is uncomfortably high and with the UK’s R value thought to be above 1 for the first time, hospitals across Birmingham are reporting a very different picture to the pandemic at its peak just two months ago. According to Ron Daniels, an intensive care specialist working in the NHS, “at last count, there were three critically ill Covid patients in hospitals across Birmingham. The reality is that hospital admission rates and bed occupancy remain incredibly low across the West Midlands. We’re not at the crisis stage yet and our rates are a third of places like Oldham.”
It was “a myth”, he added, for younger patients to think they were immune from critical illness as a consequence of Covid. “But to my mind, the testing biases towards a younger population right now,” he said. “You have to do an online search and book a test online and be mobile enough to get to a testing station. So it’s skewed to a healthier population with the more vulnerable affected early on. That’s why we’re not seeing people becoming critically ill or, perhaps, the virus is losing its virulency.”
By Friday lunchtime, the number of people in the pedestrianised city centre had picked up a touch. Most bars and restaurants were recording names and contact details of customers for the test and trace scheme, but several visited by the Observer were not. “Businesses should be following the guidelines on dining if we’re to avoid a closedown,” said Ward. “My message to the public is that if they don’t, take your business elsewhere,”
Under a light drizzle of rain on New Street, a lone female busker warbled Hindi film songs as a queue formed outside Zara, the fashion store. Masks were being worn, and social distancing was made easy given the mainly empty streets. Distant clanging could be heard from the construction of student accommodation nearby.
“At the end of the day, it’s always profit over people,” said Sam Beard, 25, a building site worker. “My job has some of the highest levels of [Covid] casualties but I can tell you some tinpot construction companies are doing the bare minimum in terms of safety to keep operating.
“Covid measures go out of the window when they’re at risk of being fined for not making the deadline.”
Beard said he would self-isolate if he started to show any symptoms, but had less confidence that all of his co-workers would do the same. The council said it would continue to lobby the government to provide financial support to those having to self-isolate.
“At the moment there is a disincentive to self-isolate if you fear you will lose income,” said Ward, conscious of the impact this was having on workers taking risks. “We would like government to address that issue.”
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