“It’s brutal, to be honest”- Tory Treatment of the North

Martha Storey

The tangled web of local lockdowns has recently been swept away and replaced with a simpler, three-tiered system of local Covid-19 alert levels. This neat manoeuvre has only highlighted the neglect of areas in existing local lockdowns, making the divide between treatment of London and the rest of the country all the more prominent.

An overhaul of local lockdowns is undoubtedly necessary; this summer has seen a plethora of lockdowns across the UK, each differing slightly in detail. This highly localised approach might make sense in theory; different outbreak patterns being solved by a tweaked set of guidelines. However, the crucial thing that the rules forget is that people have to follow them. When there are too many different guidelines published, people can’t keep up, and many stop following the detail of the lockdowns that they don’t want to be in in the first place. The tiered system aims to solve this, with clearer guidelines based on the broad severity of an area’s outbreak.

The confusion caused by the previous ad-hoc local lockdowns demonstrates the hastiness of the government’s stop-gap method of tackling Covid-19. There has been little monitoring of local lockdowns; once in place, they have not been tweaked to improve either medical or economic prospects. It is clear that in many places, they just aren’t working; my home town has been in local lockdown since restrictions were controversially announced the night before Eid al-Adha (30th July) – but cases continue to rise. In Greater Manchester, an area with similar restrictions, cases are rising by 23% week on week. Even with the tier system clearing up the restrictions in place, it remains unclear whether these stringent measures are helping matters.

There have been questions raised about which regions of the UK have been locked down. Many of the areas which have had prolonged stricter lockdown measures have seen the number of their Covid-19 cases dwarfed by other areas who have somehow escaped a local lockdown. Bolton, with one Labour MP and two “red-wall” Conservative MPs, locked down in July when the cases hit 26.79 per 100,000 – however Boris Johnson’s Hillingdon constituency hit 80.82, and Raab’s Elmbridge seat surpassed 127 cases per 100,000 earlier this month. While both are now under higher Covid-19 tiers, these numbers don’t appear overnight; clearly, lockdowns were delayed for these, and many other, constituencies.

Lockdowns inevitably mean economic hardship for any region, but many of the areas lumped with strict restrictions on socialising are in areas particularly reliant on the hospitality sector. Many of the regions with pre-existing local lockdowns were areas that had not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crash; prolonging their lockdowns and forcing businesses to stay shut will inevitably spell disaster in the long-run. For a country described as the most regionally unequal in the developed world, the government’s approach is ignorant and inappropriate. With such stark differences between the treatment of these regions, seemingly regardless of their number of cases, serious questions must be answered, not only about the nature of lockdown, but about where the lockdowns are.

Perhaps most controversially, the government announced increased economic support for businesses shortly after London was placed under a tier two lockdown. While a positive step for London, the move angered many Northern political leaders, whose constituents had been living under the same “high alert” restrictions for months, with much less economic support. Clearly, the effects of these restrictions were felt acutely in the capital, however it raised serious questions about the approach of the government towards regions it promised to “level up” at the start of this year. It is disheartening for residents and MPs of these regions to see that their pleas for more financial support are only met when their hardships are shared by areas closer to Westminster, despite the months of suffering they endured.

The loudest voice in this debate was almost certainly Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester and long-time spokesperson for the North. Much of Greater Manchester had been enduring the harsher lockdown measures for nearly three months, with talks breaking down when Greater Manchester attempted to negotiate a £65 million support package.

One of the remarkable things about the situation was the government’s communication, which was publicly very poor. After talks, Burnham was at a press conference about the situation in Greater Manchester following a week of disgruntlement towards the government. Meanwhile, MPs were in a call being told about the £22 million package that Greater Manchester was to receive. In a well-circulated video, we see Burnham at the press conference, being shown this news on a phone screen. His candid reaction of “It’s brutal, to be honest” seems apt when the third largest city in the UK receives 22 times as much as what London-based entertainment firm Secret Cinema received.

The discrepancy between the amounts in talks and the amount initially handed to Greater Manchester (which has now been promised an additional £60 million in addition to the £22 million) shows that the power of mayors such as Burnham is relatively small. The poor communication also displays a very public disregard for the work of metropolitan mayors and the areas they represent. This is interesting coming from the same party that passed the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act in 2016, which devolved power to mayors of combined local authorities in England and Wales. In the wake of this year, this devolution seems purely performative; clearly the government don’t recognise regional mayors as very powerful at all. Given the slew of elections planned for 2021, this is concerning; devolution won’t work unless real power is handed over and these mayors are taken seriously. Many of the mayors are Labour mayors, and handing over ersatz power could just mean the party is blamed for local decisions that they have no real control over.

This year has created a growing pile of complaints against the government’s treatment of the regions it promised to ‘level up,’ and the lacklustre funding of regions that have been under local lockdown has only brought this issue to greater prominence. In the wake of this, a group of Conservative “red-wall” MPs wrote to the Prime Minister expressing their concern about the issue, warning he must “reflect carefully” on this year. Clearly, the seats gained in 2019 are not to be taken for granted. This signifies a growing divide within the Conservative Party; one that Labour should capitalise on if it wants to win back the red wall at the next election.

It has been made brutally obvious that the government lack concern for many of the regions under local lockdown; and the consequences are already being felt through both economic suffering, and the unrest within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. After the empty promises of devolution and ‘levelling up’ at the start of this year, it is clear that the Conservative Party pay little heed to the wants and needs of the North.

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