Northern Leaders Rage At 'Disastrous' Covid Measures That Will Deepen North-South Divide

Government's chaotic coronavirus response is confusing public and abandoning businesses as we head into winter, warn mayors and council chiefs.
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Furious local leaders in the north of England say they have been ignored and misled by Westminster over local lockdowns – and fear the public is switching off as a result.

Mayors and council chiefs have criticised the government for failing to listen to local people on coronavirus restrictions, and say the London-centric handling of the crisis is a “recipe for disaster” that could deepen the north-south divide.

The leaders of Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Leeds, Preston, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Warrington all spoke to HuffPost UK in dismay at the way their regions have been treated.

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Middlesbrough mayor Andy Preston attacked the government over tighter lockdown measures imposed on the town last week, claiming they “didn’t make sense” and vowing to defy them.

He told HuffPost UK he spoke out after being given “virtually no notice” of the new measures and seeing local intelligence “ignored”.

“I felt very strongly about what happened and was upset, angry and frustrated,” he said. “We had gone to government with an excellent proposal on how to deal with Covid-19 locally based on local data and science.

“To see that ignored in favour of a London-based directive was disheartening and concerning.”

Mayor of Middlesborough Andy Preston
Mayor of Middlesborough Andy Preston
Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

Preston added: “Our country has a long standing and deep-rooted problem with over-centralisation. This has been the case with whoever has been in power.

“It is really undemocratic, a recipe for disaster, and leads to a disengagement with politics.

“If the government is serious about levelling up, they need to work locally with people. Sitting in London and trying to level up just does not work.”

On the growing sense of rebellion among leaders in the north of England, Preston said: “Tensions are very high everywhere – in every group and in different communities. Everyone is worried about the future. What we need is to talk more. The government can put this right very easily.”

Shane Moore, Hartlepool Council leader, described the new measures affecting his town as “draconian”.

He had been told no restrictions would be imposed on Hartlepool and Middlesbrough without written agreement from local leaders. Next thing he knew, he’d received a press release about the local lockdown Matt Hancock was announcing at that moment.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, meanwhile, told HuffPost UK: “We are at a point where people are disengaging because they are either confused or they don’t agree with the rules.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham
Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham
PA

“If we go into this winter with millions of people [in the north] under restrictions, and businesses suffering because of those restrictions with no financial support, we are going to see the north-south divide massively increased.

“This is a real danger staring us right in the face. A government that says it wants to ‘level up’ cannot put the north under restrictions without financial support.”

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds Council, told HuffPost UK of a general frustration with the government – but doesn’t feel this is confined to the north.

She says leaders have been pushing since the pandemic began for the government to work more closely with local authorities across the country.

Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake
Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake
PA

“We have seen failures when it comes to PPE (personal protective equipment); support for people shielding and problems with Test and Trace,” she said.

“All of those things would have been much better handled from a local level to enable people to live with the virus.

“The government needs to trust local government more and have faith in our expertise in public health and environmental health and our ability to work with our communities.”

But she also cautioned against constant variation in restrictions.

“When places are subjected to frequent changes by the government, it leads to confusion, particularly when areas that are close together have different regulations,” she said.

Blake told HuffPost UK measures such as the 10pm curfew risk causing “the complete and utter destruction of the hospitality sector”, particularly in city centres across the north.

“If the government is going to put in more restrictions, they also need to put together a compensation package to enable these businesses to survive,” she said.

“We all represent areas with different characteristics and challenges. Clearly, across the north, there are more concentrations of places with higher levels of deprivation.

“The government needs to be clearer about the decisions they are making, as they are obviously not being made on just numbers alone. The reasons need to be communicated transparently so people understand why.

“Our approach is to work with our communities. We can work on the strength of community at a local level, which will lead to more buy-in.

“The problem comes when all these announcements come from Whitehall asking people to do things without them fully understanding the reasons.”

The government’s pandemic response has been a “mess” since it began, according to Preston Council leader Matthew Brown.

He told HuffPost UK: “The messaging has been very inconsistent. People are confused and everything is very last minute.”

He says the fact some places have local restrictions imposed by law while others receive only “guidance” is confusing the public.

Matthew Brown, leader of Preston Council
Matthew Brown, leader of Preston Council
Preston Council

“It has been a myriad of disasters,” Brown said. “There has not been much joined-up thinking. It has been very much reacting to circumstances rather than strong leadership.

“While I won’t be encouraging people to defy restrictions as I think that’s going too far, I can understand the anger and frustration and do think the government is going down the wrong path.

“Crucially, the things we have been putting forward as council leaders have not been taken on board and we do not have the infrastructure in place that we need.

“We need the proper resources to fight this virus and clear messages supported by proper restrictions. The current centralised system is just not working.”

Brown added that places in the north such as Preston have pockets of deprivation as well as people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) populations, who are disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

“Coronavirus has not been a great leveller,” he said. “But local authorities are dealing with this on the ground. The government should be giving communities powers to deal with things themselves.”

Russ Bowden, Warrington Council leader, criticised the government for failing to offer enough financial support to businesses affected by local lockdown.

Russ Bowden, Warrington Council leader
Russ Bowden, Warrington Council leader
Russ Bowden

“The extra money that has been announced is for councils for the implementation of the new measures,” he said. “It does not support affected businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector.

“These extra restrictions will have a huge impact on pubs and restaurants. What we can’t afford is for jobs to be lost and for businesses to close.

“The government has to come up with a financial package for businesses in any areas with enhanced restrictions.

“It is going to be very difficult for some businesses to survive a second hit.”

Metro mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram believes northern areas have been treated differently from those down south.

“I’m told the London coronavirus figures are now higher than when Greater Manchester was put into local lockdown,” he said. Areas in the region with as few as six cases per 100,000 went into lockdown at the end of July, yet London – with 10 times that rate as of Tuesday evening, and a mayor actively pleading for restrictions – remains untouched.

“It feels like there is one rule for one and one rule for another and it does seem to disproportionately be northern areas which are being further restricted,” he said.

“We want to know the science behind it and what triggers the restrictions. We also want to know how you measure when you come out of the restrictions. Where is the road map to exit?”

The leaders of Liverpool City Region have put together a £40m emergency package to stop pubs, bars and restaurants from going out of business.

Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of the Liverpool City Region
Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of the Liverpool City Region
Steve Rotheram

But Rotheram says areas in the north in particular need more assistance from central government: “These additional restrictions are hurting businesses. We are doing what we can to help them, but it is a sticking plaster. We need more structural help from government.”

He also told HuffPost UK the recent technical glitch that saw almost 16,000 Covid-19 cases go unreported shows the UK is “millions of miles away from the world class test and trace system we were promised”.

“In the north west, we had 40% of the new cases but only 15% of the testing capacity,” he said. “The number of cases have risen exponentially but the support hasn’t gone up in proportion.

“We need our councils to be supported financially and for the government to ensure our businesses can survive, otherwise the economic wreckage will mean everyone will suffer.

“There will be people needlessly made unemployed who will be on benefits, and what good will that do anyone?”

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