If ever there was a case for proper devolution – that is, a settlement with appropriate powers, decision-making, and accountability at either city or regional level – then news today that an announcement of further lockdowns for the North of England is expected within days has just made the strongest of cases.
Despite gestures towards more local decision-making and local control in handling the pandemic, the government took to the national press to inform the good people of the North that further restrictions were coming. The failure to consult, or even give prior warning about this decision, is the last straw for mayors, MPs, and those who work in the hospitality industry.
Huffington Post reported that earlier this week local leaders in the North of England were “furious” at having been “ignored and misled by Westminster over local lockdowns”. The “London-centric handling of the crisis” was called a “recipe for disaster” with fears that it could worsen the north/south divide.
Now, according to Politico’s London playbook, Downing Street is facing a furious backlash from MPs, mayors and council leaders across the North of England as plans emerged for further measures to be introduced from next Monday across much of the North. The fury, wrote Alex Wickham, comes “from local leaders who say they have been disrespected and kept in the dark, from Conservative MPs in ‘red wall’ seats who fear economic and electoral Armageddon in their constituencies, from Cabinet ministers concerned about the ‘opaqueness’ of the decision-making process, and from traditionally Tory-supporting newspapers”.
Late last night, mayors and MPs took to Twitter to vent their frustration – in some cases anger – at not being kept in the loop about the latest measures. Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis told the prime minister to “get a grip”, calling it “recklessly irresponsible to brief the papers but not leaders in the North who’ll somehow have to make this work”. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham railed against there having been, “No discussion. No consultation” with “millions of lives affected by Whitehall diktat” and it “proving impossible to deal with this government”.
Au contraire – it seems the government is finding it impossible to deal with other people. Last night’s decision was made by a ‘gold command’ meeting of ministers and advisers as reported in the Sun and although exact details are patchy the Times reported this morning that Johnson had signed off on the lockdown last night. The Nottingham Post stated quite confidently that new local restrictions are expected to be announced on Monday, 12 October, coming into effect from Wednesday, 14 October.
The scale, size, and shape of the lockdown has yet to be revealed. The Sun suggests that it will be a three-tier system. Tier 1 would see current social distancing measures, the ‘rule of six’, and a pub curfew of 10pm enforced. Tier 2 would have the same restrictions, plus a ban on households mixing. However, it is expected that a large part of the Northwest and Northeast will fall under Tier 3, in which pubs, restaurants and other hospitality businesses will be shut. Where Yorkshire would fall in this is still unknown.
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The government is undoubtedly spooked by the speed at which the virus is spreading and the extent to which this is leading to hospital admissions. The Sun reported that cases in the Northwest rose by 56 percent in the seven days to 1 October, while hospital admissions were up by 46 percent. In the Northeast there was a 46 percent rise in cases, with hospital admissions up 45.9 percent.
But now comes the question of just how enforceable all this will be. There are already fears that the public will now simply ignore guidance. There is also the worry that people in the North of England will take this weekend to drink at the last-chance saloon and go out en masse. Right now, the government needs not just the goodwill of the people – it also needs the goodwill of local politicians, many of whom have been enraged by central government’s handling so far.
Increasingly there is also the question of why the North is so badly affected. Bristol has its fair share of students and areas of deprivation, as does Plymouth and Southampton. But take a glance at Public Health England’s weekly coronavirus surveillance report and it jumps out that case rates remain highest in the Northwest and Yorkshire, with the Southwest, Southeast and East of England regions remaining comparatively low.
It is not just that. Lockdown was sold to us last time as a measure to give the NHS breathing space – to flatten the curve – and to allow a system to test, track and trace the virus to be put in place. That was six months ago. Today, test and trace is failing to work at the capacity and scale needed, while localised interventions have gone by the wayside. Has the government learned nothing since March?
And of course there is the thorny issue of the extent to which local lockdowns are working. This was a point that Labour leader Keir Starmer raised in yesterday’s prime minister’s questions, when he highlighted that 19 out of 20 areas in local lockdown have actually seen an increase in infection rates. “The prime minister can’t explain why an area goes into restrictions. He can’t explain what the different restrictions are, and he can’t explain how restrictions end. This is getting ridiculous”, Starmer said, as quoted in the Guardian.
He has a point. We all thought we were going to be guided by the science, but the science has failed to come up with an explanation of why we have the spikes where we have them. And increasingly the case for lockdowns seems at best to be hanging in the balance.
It does, in the end, come down to two things. Test, track, and trace is surely the best way to keep on top of this, and control the virus. But that system must be trusted, accountable, transparent, and locally accessible. And then we will need a vaccine – one that is also trusted and locally accessible.
This government so far has sold us short. And it is really selling the North short. Unless the government starts to engage with people on the ground and learn to let some power go and trickle-down from Westminster and Whitehall to the regions and localities, it will repeat the same mistakes. The regional variance confirms that a London-centric, top-down approach is the last thing we need right now.