10 min read26 August 2020
Ministers will on Thursday decide whether to ease the wave of coronavirus restrictions facing parts of northern England. Amid signs of a fresh spat between Whitehall and local leaders, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham tells Matt Honeycombe-Foster of his ongoing frustrations with the NHS contact tracing scheme — and why there’s ‘no room for politics in a pandemic’.
It’s now been four weeks since the people of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire were hit by the late-night news that much of life would be going back on hold.
In measures still in force across much of the region, and due for review on Thursday, separate households have been banned since July 30 from meeting up at home or in their gardens. And, even as diners have tucked into the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, and the pubs have started to fill up again, those subject to the restrictions in the north of England cannot socialise indoors with those they do not live with. Family members remain out of reach as all-but-exceptional care home visits are prohibited.
The July 30 changes marked a fresh speedbump in the Government’s long road out of lockdown, and arrived on the day a somber Boris Johnson temporarily squeezed the brakes on his nationwide easing plan. “I know how it is hard to have restrictions like this imposed on seeing your family and your friends,” Johnson told the people of Northern England. “But we have to act rapidly in order to protect those we love.”
Four weeks in, however, and with a fresh review of the restrictions due Thursday, there are reasons to be optimistic about the situation in Greater Manchester at least.
The latest weekly figures show that the rate of new Covid-19 cases is falling in eight in ten of its boroughs. Although there have been small week-on-week increases in new Covid-19 cases in Bury and Wigan, positive tests per 100,000 people in the latter borough are far below the numbers for Oldham, which remains the worst-hit area.
As a result, Wigan this week became the first of the Greater Manchester boroughs to see its restrictions lifted — and the region’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham has now urged the government in Westminster to let Bolton follow suit.
“The restrictions have worked, in my view, and it was the right thing to do because we had increases in nine out of 10 boroughs a month ago — and now we’re seeing most of our boroughs beginning to drop down to much better levels now,” he tells PoliticsHome. “It’s not been easy for people. But it has worked.”
Burnham, who was critical of the way the initial restrictions were announced via a tweet and short pooled clip from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, says local leaders are now at least beginning to get used to the “rhythm” of how Whitehall assesses local restrictions, with a ‘Gold Command’ meeting of the Joint Biosecurity Centre making the ultimate call following discussions with regional politicians.
“I think what’s improved is our ability to feed into that, and to be fair to the Government, when we’ve been discussing Oldham over the past fortnight — I think we’ve been able to have a discussion in advance of the decision so that we can hopefully get that decision right,” the mayor says. “It has improved.”
“Test and Trace isn’t working in the areas it most needs to work”
But Burnham remains worried that ministers have still not given Greater Manchester all the tools it needs to get out of the bind it still finds itself in.
Top of his list of concerns is the much-vaunted coronavirus Test and Trace system, aimed at spotting localised outbreaks and rapidly reaching those who may have come into contact with infected people to ask them to self-isolate.
“Test and Trace isn’t working in the areas it most needs to work,” he argues. “If you look at the latest figures, it’s contacting just over half of the contacts of people in the areas where the virus is most prevalent.”
It’s been a common refrain from local leaders since a scheme billed by Johnson as “world-beating” was launched in late May. In a sign those concerns were being heard in Whitehall, the Government this month confirmed a major shift in its Test and Trace strategy, making clear it would “reduce the number of non-NHS call handlers” used by private firms Serco and Sitel to reach people remotely, and instead hand more responsibility and resources to councils and public health teams to track them down.
Burnham says Test and Trace has “certainly moved in a better direction more recently”, and he credits Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan, drafted in to link up national and local contact tracing efforts, for overseeing a “decisive” shift in approach.
But the Labour mayor remains concerned that Whitehall is still “throwing billions” at its private contractors while councils “have been scratching around for the resources to do proper contact-tracing as I would call it: the door-to-door work”. Reallocated staff “haven’t materialised yet”.
And the effectiveness of Test and Trace more generally has, he argues, been limited by the cold economic reality facing those asked to self-isolate. “People in lower-paid employment can’t easily take two weeks off work,” he says, pointing to those in zero-hours contracts and workers unable to claim statutory sick pay. The Government announced on Wednesday night that people on low incomes in parts of England with high Covid-19 rates will be able to claim £13 a day if they have to self-isolate, a move Hancock says will alllow them “to continue playing their part in the national fight”. While Burnham has welcomed the shift from ministers, he has argued it “goes nowhere near far enough” in compensating those asked to to self-isolate.
While the Greater Manchester mayor would like to see more targeted support for the region he represents, he believes the Treasury has now “sort of shut up shop” after a wave of interventionist measures from Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the early days of the pandemic — a risky position ahead of a potential “tsunami” of job losses.
“There are sectors that just can’t return in any significant way,” he says. “Aviation is a big one in Greater Manchester, obviously, but you could include live events, conferencing, music, theatre. There are lots of industries that will be operating at half speed at best. And the loss of furlough is going to cause massive problems.”
“I could have said no and gone public. But I’ve tried not to play politics all the way through this”
The Greater Manchester mayor is also sharply critical of what he calls the “avoidable” decision to end the nationwide shielding programme, which saw those deemed clinically extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 told to drastically limit their contact with others. Ending the scheme means those who were shielding from the virus no longer receive free food parcels and medicine deliveries from the National Shielding Service, with people instead being pointed towards voluntary support groups.
“Literally on the day of the Greater Manchester restrictions coming in the Prime Minister made a speech at lunchtime saying that shielding would be ending the next day,” he recalls.
“That just shows, to me, a lack of thought about what it would have felt like to be somebody shielding in Greater Manchester, having had months of not going out, hearing on the news that Greater Manchester was under more restrictions because there were more cases here, and then being told ‘oh but it’s fine for you to go back out to shops, get your own food and get back to work’.”
Burnham, like fellow Labour mayor Sadiq Khan in London, has pitched himself as an above-the-fray leader during the pandemic. But the clear tension between central and regional decision-making in the Government’s coronavirus fight means the former health secretary has inevitably been drawn back into the rough-and-tumble of politics.
He pushed early on in the pandemic for representation on the Government’s Cobra crisis committee. “Sadiq Khan, I think, challenged to get on Cobra and was rightly given a place,” Burnham says. “But they should have given the mayor of the West Midlands, mayor of Liverpool City Region, myself and others a platform and a forum to raise issues of concern in a more structured way. We’ve been left to lobby in a slightly ad-hoc way, sometimes privately, but sometimes publicly, because we’ve no choice.”
Burnham meanwhile came under fire just days after the July 30 restrictions kicked in for saying it would be “impossible to start breaking one borough off and separating boroughs out”, despite lower case numbers in Wigan than the rest of Greater Manchester. In an open letter posted on social media, nine Conservative MPs expressed their “grave concerns” with the comments, and accused Burnham of arguing for a “one size fits all” approach across the whole of Greater Manchester.
“They’ve been issuing press releases and putting statements on Facebook and trying to blame me for it as though I wanted a Greater Manchester restriction”
“That’s been frustrating,” he says of the row. “I was approached by a Conservative government who said: ‘We think we need to put restrictions on all of Greater Manchester.’ You know, I could have said no and gone public. But I’ve tried not to play politics all the way through this. I have seen the evidence myself and I could see there was a case for the restrictions so I agreed to it.” Burnham says he has “done what I believe to be the right thing”, and believes the attack on him has been cover for Conservatives’ own frustrations with the central government response.
“They’ve been issuing press releases and putting statements on Facebook and trying to blame me for it as though I wanted a Greater Manchester restriction,” he says of his Tory critics. “Well, no, the Government came to me asking for that. So that has been disappointing and I don’t think there’s any room for politics in a pandemic, to be honest with you.“
But the political battles show no sign of calming down. Hancock, the Health Secretary, has asked council leaders and MPs to work together to agree on the districts that can be freed from coronavirus restrictions. But, speaking after a series of meetings on the Government’s plans on Wednesday, Burnham told HuffPostUK he feared ministers had drawn up “a recipe for utter confusion, division and chaos” when Thursday’s decision is made. He was joined in his criticism by the leaders of Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees councils in West Yorkshire, who said: “Different restrictions ward-by-ward and place-by-place decided by Tory backbench MPs undermines local council leadership and is no way to lead a nation through a national pandemic. You need to set a clear national framework for the nation which local authorities (can) operate within. Instead you’re making it up as you go along.”
“People have to have the confidence that everything possible is being done before they’re asked to take on restrictions in their life”
Boris Johnson has been adamant that national lockdown remain very much the “response of last resort” — a position that will leave localised restrictions like those imposed in Greater Manchester to do the heavy lifting. It’s likely that, even if Thursday’s changes allow the people of Greater Manchester to inch a little closer to normality, regional curbs will be a fact of life for many months to come.
And, as the people of Greater Manchester await their fate, Burnham is clear about the change of approach he believes is needed from central government. “It has to consult people properly,” he says. “It didn’t do that at first but it’s done that more in recent weeks. It really has to listen to people at a local level. This is hard stuff, really hard, when you’re asking residents to accept these curbs on their freedom.”
He adds: “People have to have the confidence that everything possible is being done before they’re asked to take on restrictions in their life. And currently, the Government can’t say that.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe