A London-centric wheel of fortune

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week announced a new mass testing regime for secondary school pupils in the southern Covid-19 hotspot regions of London, Kent and Essex. Workers in the education sector, particularly in northern hotspot regions, were quick to express their exasperation. The government seemed, yet again, to be giving special priority to the needs of the capital, whilst schools in northern regions have been grappling with extremely high Covid-19 rates for months and have not received any additional testing. Is this just the latest in a series of Covid-19 policies that have arguably been catered to the needs of the south? Is there an argument to be made that the government’s Covid-19 response has been designed with the needs of the financial hub of London prioritised, and the rest of the country a mere afterthought?

Contrary to “putting their arms around” the whole of the UK, the north has once again been forgotten

A striking scenario that springs to mind is Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s two week-long row with Westminster in October. Burnham mounted an impassioned defence of Manchester when the government attempted to force the city into Tier 3 restrictions with minimal financial support. Heated negotiations concluded in just a £22 million package. The metro mayor labelled this a “disgraceful” outcome, having asked for £75 million “to prevent poverty, to prevent hardship, to prevent homelessness.” It is crucial to note that nobody ever criticised the government for suggesting the necessity of Tier 3 for the city. It was plain to see that action had to be taken: infection rates had sky-rocketed. What warrants extreme criticism, however, is the ‘one size fits all’ approach that the government has taken to its financial support during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson’s government has simply not taken into account the additional needs of regions such as Manchester, where 43.3% of neighbourhoods were classed as highly deprived in 2019. Decades of successive governments that have neglected the north of the country have meant that the effects of Covid-19 have been felt even more harshly in these regions. Workers, a very high proportion of them working in face-to-face industries such as hospitality, simply do not have the financial autonomy to ‘stay at home’. Many are mortified of the financial doom that could be brought upon them if they are forced to self-isolate. When areas like Manchester are plunged into top-tier restrictions with minimal financial support, businesses cannot stay afloat, unemployment rises rapidly, and the most deprived are usually the worst hit. Whilst Mr Johnson claims that his government have been “putting their arms around” the whole of the UK, the north has once again been forgotten.

The indignation of northern education workers at this mass testing policy in London schools is therefore natural when their regions were never offered such preventative measures. This policy was a last, futile attempt to prevent doom for the capital, as its infection rates rose far beyond anything seen thus far in the south. Despite the fact that this policy will only have made a minimal difference, since it was introduced so close to the Christmas holidays, and we now know that a new strain of Covid-19 is ripping through the south, it nevertheless seems to expose the government’s desperation to suppress London infection rates, whilst other regions have simply been left to struggle.

The government must ensure that it takes a regional approach and stops the nonsensical ‘one size fits all’ approach

Even this last desperate attempt to prevent the highest tiers of restrictions for the capital could arguably be excused, since such a vast percentage of the country’s economy is concentrated there, particularly in the form of the financial hub. What cannot be excused is the complete lack of financial support offered to regions like Manchester that have suffered high infection rates for a far longer time, as well as having already suffered decades of ignorance by Westminster. What Mr Johnson must do is attempt to truly deliver on his promise to “level up” the whole of the UK. His government must invest in things such as northern infrastructure if it is to have any chance of undoing the many years of neglect. In terms of its Covid-19 response, the government must ensure that it takes a regional approach to restrictions and support packages as far as possible and stops the nonsensical ‘one size fits all’ approach that is helping to deepen the wealth divide in this country today.

Illustration by Amber Conway.

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