It’s time for the North to take back control

View across the river towards the Houses of Parliament.
Photo by Dominika Gregušová on

As we head for a second lockdown here in Yorkshire it’s hard not to reflect on the abysmal decision by the government to brief details of the lockdown to national newspapers before putting the measures to local leaders, or even members of parliament.

Just when the government needs the North most, Boris Johnson appears to have lost the support of a large swathe of the population and many of the local political leaders. Yet he needs our cooperation more than ever right now as we bear the brunt of the second wave of coronavirus.

Johnson needs to stop picking fights. First it was with the devolved nations. His relationship with them has been at the best terse. Leaders in both Wales and Scotland continue to see Brexit legislation as a “power grab” by the centre and the recent internal market mill has just made things worse.

And now it’s the North.

Finding out through newspapers last Thursday about the government’s intention to undertake further lockdowns in the North, just lit the fuse to a very big firework that has been waiting to go off. The anger is palpable and should come as no surprise.

The irony of saying that more must be done at a local level – and then imposing that from the centre without even consulting – is unbelievable. And sadly this has been the way that the government has handled things from the start.

Covid-19 has brought all the North-South tensions back to the surface in spades. Early on mayors, and in particular Andy Burnham, were crying out to have not just more resources, but more powers to respond to the pandemic. Voices from Independent Sage were saying the same thing. Quietly, so were our Directors of Public Health.

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But the anger felt is not just about the lack of engagement. It’s also about lack of trust. Dominic Cummings’ little trip to Barnard Castle was just the start of a downward spiral for the government over trust. Time and again we have seen policy leaks to the papers before our MPs or local leaders have seen or heard anything. And time and again we see those in power flout the rules.

Track and trace, that ‘world-beating’ service that was going to turn around tests in 24 hours, is an abysmal failure. Worse than a failure, there is now more than a sniff of corruption around the handling of contracts issued for services and equipment needed to deal with the coronavirus.

And then this morning, the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam, seemed to confirm what many of us have been thinking – that lockdown was lifted far too early for the North. The reason for the rise in the North, according to Van Tam, was because the disease level in the North “never dropped” as much as in the South. So the lockdown was lifted to suit conditions for London and the South – not the North.

Any government worth its salt would have a track and trace system that told you that the virus was still running rampant in our communities. It would have known that students returning to university would present a particular problem for northern cities, where our ratio of student population to resident population is greater, and where our student populations live and breath in our city centres.

Tonight local leaders, including the South Yorkshire mayor, continue to be in talks with the government about the finer details of the financial package for places like South Yorkshire. There is still confusion, but one thing is clear – it really is time for the North to take back control.

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