A series of tougher measures have been imposed in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull after a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases.
From Tuesday, separate households in the three West Midlands council areas will not be able to mix. The restrictions will not affect schools, public transport or workplaces.
The move follows two days of discussions between the government and regional health and local authority leaders after the city’s seven-day infection rate rose to 78.2 cases per 100,000 of the population.
Public health officials in Liverpool said the city had been added to the government’s watchlist of areas of concern after a significant rise in confirmed cases. A total of 303 people had been diagnosed with the virus in the last seven days – double the number recorded in the previous week and four times that of the week before.
The West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, announced the ban on households mixing in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull at a briefing on Friday, describing it as a “national intervention ban on people socialising with people outside their household”.
The ban will officially come into force on Tuesday 15 September, but Street urged the public to start adhering immediately.
Street said: “The restrictions being introduced are designed to address the causes of transmission head-on. It’s vital that we all do our utmost to keep control of this awful virus and ensure our efforts over the past few months are not wasted. If we step up our fight against this virus in the ways proposed we can continue the gradual return to other aspects of normal life.
“If we don’t do this now, we risk more loss of life, even stricter measures in future and more job losses. So whilst not seeing family and friends is tough, we must think of them, our responsibility to them, and to the whole community.”
Clive Wright, the Covid-19 regional convenor for the West Midlands, said the rule change would not affect schools or workplaces but described it as a “critical” time.
“For several months we have seen few or no admissions to hospitals but this has now changed. It is a salutary reminder that this is still a killer disease,” he said.
Wright added that the public in the area had become “too relaxed”, saying: “We are seeing a rapid increase in the rate of cases in different areas.”
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The leader of Birmingham city council, Ian Ward, said the virus’s spread had primarily occurred in private households and in places where social distancing was not being observed, with younger people disproportionately affected. He added that there had been a rise in infections among white people.
“We know this is difficult. The virus has not gone away, it has not weakened, it is relentless and we must be relentless in dealing with it,” he added.
Ward expressed frustration at the government about the lack of clarity surrounding its COVID marshal scheme announced earlier this week.
“We need extra clarity on how it will work on the ground,” he said.
Ward added that he was pressing for “a route map” for what would happen next, particularly if rates came down. “This will ensure residents have incentives to follow the rules for now,” he said.
The city’s director of public health, Dr Justin Varney, previously said the rise in the number of cases in the region was linked primarily to private household gatherings at the end of August and across the bank holiday weekend. An increase in testing had also turned up more positive results, he said.
The city had already been moved up the Public Health England (PHE) watchlist, which ranks local authority areas of concern by infection rate when it was deemed an area in need of “enhanced support” last month after recording a seven-day infection rate above 30 per 100,000 people.
In response, the local authority introduced tougher measures, agreed with the government, including a legally enforced crackdown on businesses flouting Covid-19 measures. A whistleblowers’ hotline has had more than 800 calls.
Birmingham is third in a national table of local authority areas with the highest infection rates, behind Bolton and Sunderland. Bolton’s seven-day rate stands at 143 cases per 100,000, and Sunderland’s is 84, according to data from NHS Digital.
Last week, the head of England’s biggest NHS hospital trust said there was “absolutely no scientific evidence” that coronavirus was weakening, as he warned against complacency in Birmingham.
Dr David Rosser, of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS trust, said speculation that the virus had significantly mutated into a less virulent form was incorrect and medics were “deeply concerned” about an increase in the number of hospital admissions.