Coronavirus: 'Why can I meet my mum in a pub but not her home?'

By Rebecca Woods
BBC News, Birmingham

  • Published
A Covid-19 social distancing public notice on a street in BirminghamImage source, EPA

More than 1.8 million people in the West Midlands are under new lockdown restrictions. But with the main message being not to mix households and the introduction of the national "rule of six" coming at the same time, confusion has been rife. Here's what people in Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull and Wolverhampton can do now, and what they cannot - until infection rates come down.

In a nutshell, what are the new rules?

If you live in Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull or Wolverhampton, you are not allowed to socialise with anyone outside your household in your house or garden - and you cannot go into anyone else's. The only other person you could socialise with in their house or garden would be a person you have formed a support bubble with - and that would have to be a person living on their own, or a single parent with children under 18.

These rules do not just apply to you while you are in the West Midlands - people living in the affected areas cannot socialise in the homes or gardens of anyone else across the country.

So what we can do?

Pretty much everything else you could do since the national lockdown was loosened. If you live in the West Midlands you can continue going to pubs, restaurants, cafes, parks and attractions, and can do so with people from other households - provided you abide by the national "rule of six". You can also go to work, and children can continue going to school.

Why are the rules so specific about houses and gardens?

This is key to understanding the reasons for the local lockdown. Data has shown that, in the West Midlands, the virus has been spreading more rapidly because of contact with other families within each others' homes.

"What we're seeing most strongly from the evidence is that people are meeting up behind closed doors and just forgetting to keep the two metres distance," explained Dr Justin Varney, director of public health at Birmingham City Council.

"They're going in for a handshake or a hug. They're passing a plate of biscuits from each other and that's spreading the virus and we're particularly seeing that where people have gathered with multiple households behind closed doors, being the kind of epicentre of some of these clusters. That's not to say we haven't got clusters in other places, but the strongest evidence at the moment is for that and therefore we brought in additional regulations."

Image source, PA Media

But why is it OK to meet my mum in a pub but not her house?

Pubs, restaurants, schools and workplaces have had to implement strict safety procedures such as one-way systems, hand gel stations and social distancing, and for this reason they are viewed as being a safer place to socialise than inside a home.

"They've got to have a clear plan that keeps you safe," Dr Varney explained. "We're not seeing a huge amount of spread in those settings where they are managing them safely. Where they're not, yes we have seen some cases and we are doing stuff and all [the] councils are working together in terms of making absolutely crystal clear what we expect from hospitality."

The situation in the West Midlands has been different to that of Bolton, where pubs and restaurants have been ordered to close because data there showed cases were rising mainly among young people socialising in venues around the town. But if the West Midlands cannot get its cases down, then it too could see hospitality venues penalised.

"It depends on what we all do and how well we abide by this, how well we abide by the rule of six and the other guidelines that are out there," said Dr Varney. "We'll either stay here or we'll keep climbing the ladder and we may well end up like Bolton with a curfew, with takeaway only with almost full lockdown again. It's up to us to avoid that."

And schools - why are health chiefs so certain they are safe?

The Covid-19 safety plans at schools appeared to be working, said Dr Varney, despite some having to send class or year "bubbles" home after a confirmed case of coronavirus. "What we're not seeing at the moment is any clear evidence of spread within schools," he said.

"What we are seeing is the evidence of the social stuff outside of schools like birthday parties. Multiple children have gone to the same birthday party and are testing positive and that's leading to three or four bubbles in the same school having to be sent home to isolate."

Can people from Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull and Wolverhampton travel outside their towns and cities?

Yes, you are free to travel anywhere and socialise with others outside of their household - but must not enter anyone's house or garden, and must always abide by the rule of six when out and about.

Image source, EPA

And can we go on holiday?

Yes you can. However, you must not stay in the same accommodation as another household - only with members of your own household or support bubble. "You treat it as a household unit - and you can go anywhere as that household unit," said Dr Varney. "But you can't go into anyone else's house or garden and you can't share accommodation - like a cottage or a caravan - with anyone that you don't live with."

What about if I use family and friends for childcare - can that still continue?

When the restrictions were first brought in, friends and relatives could not look after a child they did not live with.

However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has since announced an exemption to allow for formal and informal arrangements for looking after children under the age of 14.

It came after Julian Knight, MP for Solihull, Saqib Bhatti, MP for Meriden, and others wrote to the government asking if the rule could be relaxed, saying parents would struggle to work without help looking after children.

Can children stay with both parents if they don't live together?

Yes, existing arrangements between children and parents living separately can continue as normal.

Image source, EPA

Can I continue caring for a vulnerable person by going into their home?

Yes, this is exempt from the restrictions. However, people are advised to keep visits short and to adhere to national guidelines for working inside another person's home.

Can I hire a plumber or an electrician?

If people are coming to your house to carry out paid employment, then that would be allowed under the rules, provided they followed national safety guidance such as social distancing. Although it probably feels a bit strange that you can welcome a TV repair man into your home but not your parents, it is based on what an unlikely event it would be for you to feel compelled to hug the person fixing your television. Estate agents are also able to continue showing people around homes, provided they follow guidelines such as wearing face coverings and minimising numbers of people inside houses. Mobile hairdressers, beauticians and cleaners can also continue working inside people's homes.

When will this local lockdown end?

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as reaching an ideal infection rate that will mean the restrictions are lifted. The chief medical officer, Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) and the local authorities will continue to monitor the virus in the West Midlands, such as looking at how it is being transmitted, before deciding if the areas must remain on the national watch list. The situation will be updated every Friday, with details added here.

Image caption,
Solihull, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Birmingham are subject to the restrictions.

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