By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham
It is important to appreciate that the ‘R’ number is critical here and any further increase in Birmingham’s ‘R’ number will result in an escalation in localised restrictions.
Yesterday, I was reminded of April 2020. This seems such a long time ago. This was a time when we were all becoming accustomed to the new normal – lockdown. I then remembered those pre-COVID times when movement and social interactions were unconstrained. There was a time when a meeting did not involve muting microphones – happy days.
Some of my earlier blogs on COVID-19 noted that ‘people are the problem’ and that a new normal will only emerge when a viable vaccine exists, herd immunity develops, or the COVID-19 virus evolves in such a way that the threat disappears. By 14 September, not one of these conditions have been met. We have greater understanding of the virus and developments in treatment. Perhaps the only advance has been with treatment. All this suggests that social distancing and effective hygiene routines remain the primary defence against preventing a COVID-19 related domino effect or chain reaction.
Lockdown, and the increase in Birmingham’s lockdown restrictions, is an attempt to prevent a domino effect. There are multiple forms of this effect. On the one hand, it involves rapid transmission of COVID-19 resulting in surge capacity problems for the NHS. Most national health systems do not have the capacity to cope with a fast-spreading respiratory pathogen. On the other hand, our society has been experiencing an on-going process of technological and system convergence. Everyday living is supported by a complex web of inter-connected critical infrastructures. The danger is that COVID-19 might prevent those involved from managing and maintaining critical infrastructure. Any disruption to those working in this sector would ripple across society, this includes the invisible or shadow public services including the pharmaceutical, food and essential retailing sectors.
From Monday 14, the ‘Rule of Six’ applies indoors and outdoors in England and Scotland and indoors only in Wales. Thus, social gatherings of more than six people are banned. In Birmingham, from Tuesday 15 September, households have been banned from meeting others who are not in their household or support bubble and this ban applies indoors and in private gardens. For Birmingham residents, this restriction extends beyond Birmingham. Thus, Birmingham residents are banned from mixing with members of other households in locations beyond Birmingham.
There are two points to consider here. First, this is about preventing COVID-19 transmission between households and does not apply to schools, workplaces, transport, or the hospitality sector. It is important to appreciate that the ‘R’ number is critical here and any further increase in Birmingham’s ‘R’ number will result in an escalation in localised restrictions.
Second, countries across Europe are experiencing an upturn in COVID-19 cases. This might be a statistical anomaly related to an increase in testing capacity. Some label this as a ‘second wave’, but we are still experiencing the ‘first wave’.
On 23 March, I published a blog under the title ‘people are the problem’. This is still the case. There are far too many people who have not learnt how to wear a facemask. There are those who consider that they are protected from COVID and that they do not need to alter their behaviour. There is another group who think they are following the rules when they are not. All these groups are placing themselves and their contacts at risk.
The current strategy is to continue to try to restrict COVID-19 transmission and to keep the ‘R’ number below 1. This is especially critical as we are entering the flu season; flu combined with COVID-19 would increase the death rate.
There is some certainty with COVID-19 that has emerged with experience, improvisation, and research. Nevertheless, beyond COVID-19 there will be another pandemic, and no one can predict which pathogen will be responsible.
Local authorities and agencies across the West Midlands are developing strategies to enhance the post-COVID-19 recovery. It is critical that these strategies enhance regional resilience against future pandemics. The West Midlands needs to consider the current pandemic, the recovery journey combined with ensuring that the region is pandemic prepared. The danger is that policymakers and employers will be distracted by the immediate problem – COVID-19 – and ignore the need to plan and invest to enhance regional pandemic resilience. Now is the time to act.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.