A London-centric Covid-19 response

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It was difficult not to be stirred by the speech given by Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, as he lamented the government’s imposition of Tier 3 restrictions on the city. He claimed the restrictions were certain to increase “poverty, homelessness and hardship” without proper financial support from the government. In the wake of these failed negotiations, there is an ever-growing picture of blatant double standards when it comes to the government’s Covid-19 policy-making in the North versus the South.

A more localised response to Covid-19 was the only way out of the national lockdown we found ourselves in earlier in the year. Restrictions in hotspots like Manchester and Liverpool are vital, life-saving measures. But the way these “local lockdowns” have been communicated and imposed shows a total disregard for local leaders and the livelihoods of the cities’ four million residents.

When London was put under Tier 2 earlier in October, Rishi Sunak immediately announced cash grants of up to £2,100 for businesses hit by the new restrictions. But Manchester and Liverpool have been quietly suffering under the equivalent of Tier 2 restrictions since the very start of August. Next, the region was put under the even tighter restrictions of Tier 3, and the government still hadn’t provided the necessary financial support to protect furloughed workers.

There is an ever-growing picture of blatant double standards in the North versus the South

The breakdown of negotiations in Manchester hardly paints a picture of national unity in a time of crisis. The government fell £15 million short of the £75 million requested by the city’s leaders (enough to pay furloughed workers 80% of their salary rather than the two thirds mandated by the government.) And, as Andy Burnham himself pointed out, it is the already low-income workers in the hospitality industry (such as bar staff and taxi drivers) who will suffer the most.

When all of this started back in March, cases in London were considerably higher than in the rest of the UK. But a national lockdown was the only responsible way to curb the rapid spread of the virus. We had to protect those most vulnerable, even in areas of the UK where cases were still relatively low.

No one can provide a definitive explanation for why Covid-19 outbreaks have been more widespread in the North than in the South. But a very probable explanation is that the national lockdown was simply lifted far too early in the North. Public Health England statistics have shown that 24% of Covid-19 deaths in Manchester occurred after the easing of national lockdown, in contrast to just 9% of deaths in London. We needed to get the economy up and running again, but since then the North has taken a huge economic hit to prevent another national lockdown.

As concerning is the way these local restrictions have been communicated to the public. At the end of July, a late-night announcement on Twitter: “LOCKDOWN IN THE NORTH”. No press conference, no warning, no explanation (and the strong sense this headline was written by a journalist yet to venture outside the M25, clearly considering Greater Manchester and some parts of Lancashire as the extent of “the North”).

Confidence can only be generated from proper communication

The specifics of this lockdown were only clarified in a press conference from Boris Johnson the next day (with almost 24 hours of confusion and anxiety in the interim). And the list of regions affected by these restrictions (fairly crucial information for the 15 or so million people living in the North) was published on Twitter in the form of a screenshot from the Notes app on Matt Hancock’s iPhone.

As the pandemic continues to unfurl, it is not just a case of imposing restrictions top-down, but ensuring people have the confidence in government to follow them. This confidence can only generate from proper communication between central government, local leaders, and the general public, and must come with adequate justification.

At a press conference at the very start of June, Andy Burnham stressed the importance of “a new relationship with government to manage the risk in the North West”. Almost five months later, this relationship has only deteriorated. We will have to wait and see whether the government can rectify it as we approach the winter ahead.

Photograph: Number 10 via Flickr.



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