The leader of England’s biggest council has called on the Government to impose a new national lockdown amid rising case rates and pressure on intensive care beds.
Birmingham’s Labour city council leader Ian Ward said he fully expected the Government to “recognise the seriousness of the situation” and carry out a U-turn by announcing tougher restrictions, as early as this week.
Mr Ward, who heads a local authority delivering services to more than a million people, said the city was “not in a position to wait” for cases to spike to the levels seen in some London boroughs, adding ministers needed to “act early for once and get ahead of the curve”.
Pointing out the pressures on the NHS, Mr Ward added the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust (UHB), which runs four hospitals across the city, currently has an intensive care bed occupancy rate of 98%.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier refused to rule out a new national lockdown amid concern over the spread of a new Covid-19 variant and warned of “some very difficult weeks” to come.
He was speaking on the first day of the rollout of the new Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Meanwhile, Mr Ward said that in the past week there had been a 36% increase in the city’s seven-day case rate to 429 infections per 100,000 people, with hospitals “under intensive pressure”.
Speaking to BBC Radio WM, he said: “University Hospital Birmingham has 98% of its intensive care beds occupied and Sandwell and City (hospitals trust) has 100% of its intensive care beds occupied.
“We’re not in a position here to wait until the overall case rate gets up into the thousands, where it is in some London boroughs.
“We need decisive action now and the Government needs to act early for once and get ahead of the curve.”
UHB confirmed ITU (intensive treatment unit) bed occupancy rates were currently running at about 98%.
Regional hospital data from the NHS for both the West and East Midlands showed the overall number of hospital patients with Covid-19 across the region stood at 4,065 as of 8am on January 3.
This is a record high and is a jump of 16% on the previous week and 27% on two weeks ago.
Patient numbers in the Midlands peaked at 3,430 in the first wave.
Mr Ward added: “We really are back in the situation we were in last March and April.
“For six days in a row now, the case rate has exceeded 50,000, nationally.
“The Government needs to recognise where we are and unfortunately we need another lockdown.
“For a period – probably it’s going to be a period of over a month I would suggest – but we need the Government to act now to keep people safe.”
Mr Ward was speaking as many primary school pupils were returning to lessons amid concerns from teaching unions about safety amid the spread of the coronavirus variant, which has seen London primaries remain closed to all but vulnerable children and key-workers’ youngsters.
Over the weekend, the council leader wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urging him to “reconsider” a return to face-to-face learning for primary pupils in areas under Tier 4, like Birmingham.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Ward denied it was political point-scoring, adding: “This is about looking at the data and interpreting from that data what is actually going on and then coming to a view as to how you keep people safe.
“People die from this virus.
“It is extremely serious.
“We have to make the right decisions to keep people safe and that’s why I am suggesting that if a risk assessment is carried out in a school, and it is not safe to open that school, then we will back teaching staff in those decisions.”
He added the council had taken a decision back in September not to fine parents who keep their children off school if they have a genuine concern about Covid-19.
Turning to the Oxford vaccine rollout, which has yet to reach Birmingham, Mr Ward said he did not know when it would arrive in the city but that when it did, he understood deployment would initially begin at UHB’s Queen Elizabeth hospital.