How are the local politics of the Government’s three-tier system of ‘postcode lockdowns’ in England playing out, and will the new approach be enough to bring infection rates down once again?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted a national lockdown so far, while ministers argue they are ‘following the science’ by bringing in the new system. But the scientists mostly beg to differ. The Government’s own chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said he agrees with chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty that as they stand the most stringent Tier 3 restrictions do not go far enough to bring COVID-19 infections under control.
Nationally, any initial appearance of a consensus on COVID restrictions is disappearing, with leader of the Labour party Sir Keir Starmer having called for a second national lockdown. And regional mayors have found their voice.
Today it emerged that talks between the Government and metro mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and local leaders finally broke up without agreement on a financial compensation package for employees and businesses. The highest Tier 3 level of restrictions are now expected to be imposed, but local leaders say there is no evidence this will bring down infection rates. Leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese this week called for the Government to spend £14m a month on a shielding programme instead.
England’s policy approach is also at odds with that in other parts of the UK. Wales heads into a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this Friday (October 23) until Monday November 9 – and there is a £300m support package. Scotland’s ban on household visits will stay in place, but first minister Nicola Sturgeon said this week there are no plans for a lockdown similar to Wales’s ‘circuit breaker’. In Northern Ireland, which has become a pandemic hotspot, a partial lockdown began last Friday. Pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, while schools will shut for a fortnight. A £35m Localised Restrictions Support Scheme for businesses is being rolled out to all 11 councils.
Fundamental differences in outlook have emerged between many politicians representing regions already in or threatened with tier 3 restrictions and the Government. In Greater Manchester, Mr Burnham argued last week that the Government’s push for the tightest Tier 3 restrictions meant jobs and businesses are being ‘sacrificed here to try to save them elsewhere’. A call with local leaders this week was said by one source to have been broken up ‘abruptly’ by ministers. A proposal for a ‘hardship fund’ where local authorities could top up the wages of low-paid workers was talked about in the morning, but seemed to have ‘disappeared’ by the afternoon.
The devil does also seem to lie in the detail. Liverpool was the first region to move into the most strict COVID-19 tier three alert level last Wednesday, with the closure of pubs and bars and a ban on social mixing indoors and in private gardens. It also meant the closure of leisure centres, gyms, betting shops and casinos. Lancashire then moved into Tier 3 on Saturday – but with gyms still open.
Local politicians in Liverpool are angry about what they see as a confused and inconsistent approach that raises questions about fairness and parity. Mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram said he and the six local council leaders have written to the Government to ask for an explanation, ‘because in all honesty, we find this is just absolutely flabbergasting’.
He added: ‘Gyms are no less safe in the Liverpool City Region than they are in Lancashire, so it’s bizarre. This whole thing is just causing confusion upon confusion.’
Mr Rotheram said on Twitter last week that the situation in the region is ‘so severe that doing nothing was not an option, but as mayor [of Liverpool Joe] Anderson says, Government told us what they were imposing and ignored our concerns’.
He confirmed that he had negotiated ‘an additional £30m to support local jobs and businesses and £14m for local test and trace. He said he was ‘still also fighting for a fairer furlough scheme’.
Stephen Young is executive director of growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire CC. He told The MJ Lancashire had ‘basically got the original £12m the Government had offered us, and then we got an additional £30m’. Was the deal that was struck good enough?
He admitted there were some divisions across the politicians in the districts and the county ‘on whether we should have done this [deal] or whether we should have got more money’.
He added: ‘What we have done is try to keep account of local industries. In Lancashire our gyms are remaining open, and that’s not the case on Merseyside. We’ve tried where possible to provide some local resilience to industries that we think are particularly sensitive in Lancashire.’ The support money was ‘a decent award of cash, but I would argue it’s not going to be enough given the challenges industries and individuals are going to be facing’.
But in addition to the £42m, he said Lancashire has also got assurances from the Government that ‘we will get a supercharged test and trace system so we will hope to get on top of the virus in terms of where it’s going and how it’s spreading’.
London and Essex were among the areas that moved into tougher tier two COVID measures at the weekend, with London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan announcing there was ‘simply no other option’ than introducing the new restrictions. Landlords in the city have said they fear this is the ‘worst case scenario’ – with fewer people using pubs but no package of financial support.
On the website Conservative Home, MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, chair of the Justice Committee and MJ columnist Sir Bob Neill launched a scathing criticism of the imposition of a London-wide lockdown and called for a targeted support package.
In a statement to The MJ, he said the decision to move the entirety of London into Tier 2 ‘is not only ill thought through but also potentially dangerous’.
He said that ‘failing to control the pandemic has serious health consequences, but so too does rising unemployment, missed hospital appointments and prolonged separation from loved ones’.
Sir Bob added: ‘I have the utmost respect for our medical and scientific experts but it is the job of politicians to mediate between the advice they are receiving from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the evidence on the ground of businesses struggling to remain afloat.
‘I do not underestimate the seriousness of the virus or the need to protect the NHS, nor am I against strict interventions, but we need a far more localised and nuanced approach, as has been shown is possible in Germany and elsewhere.’
Essex CC had its request to the Government to move the council area into Tier 2 restrictions accepted. Southend and Thurrock, which are run by unitary authorities, are not currently covered by the Tier 2 rules. Chief executive of Essex CC Gavin Jones told The MJ that the county and district councils had been proactive. ‘It was very clear that while the absolute numbers were not as high as in many other places, that rate of growth was moving into the exponential space. We knew we would be going to be in Tier 2 probably in a few weeks’ time.’
He added: ‘Our collective feeling was that this gave us the best chance to try to get ahead of the game when the absolute numbers were relatively lower compared to other places. Potentially it would mean that we wouldn’t have to have restrictions for as long as we might have to if we delayed it by a few weeks.’
The Government’s decision to move Essex to Tier 2 quite quickly ‘was absolutely due to our credibility as a strong public health team and a strong county council’.
He added: ‘I think that because of our credibility and the coherence of our case we were able to go relatively quickly right through to the Prime Minister.’
He admitted that no details of Government funding to support businesses and individuals impacted have yet emerged. ‘Even of today we don’t know the detail of the money that will come to Essex. So the money that we might secure was not a consideration when we took the view about wanting to be proactive.’
But leaders and mayors representing six Core Cities councils in the North and Midlands are running out of patience. They wrote to the Prime Minister this week proposing six minimum standards for tiered lockdown support packages – and said that cities in Tier 2 are experiencing ‘immediate economic hardship as a result of lockdown and also need support packages to prevent further harm to business and jobs’.
Returning to Mr Jones, it seems that the door has not been slammed shut on discussions with the Government on more funding: ‘You would expect us to be lobbying hard to Government to provide financial support so that Essex businesses have the minimum impact possible’, although in his view getting ahead of the curve ‘and suppressing that growth in infections quickly is far more likely to give confidence to people to go into shops’.
Approaches to negotiating with central Government on local funding packages may differ widely, but what this crisis does show is that devolution is finally out of the bottle.