We Will Not be Canaries in a Coal Mine: Why the North’s Refusal to Accept New Lockdown Measures is About more than Inadequate Funding.

Rosie McCann is a third year History student at KCL, who grew up in the North West of England. She is passionate about social mobility and representation in higher education. Rosie also serves as UK Politics & Brexit Current Events Reporter of The Clandestine.

[Featured Image: Grafitti saying “The North is Not A Petri Dish”. A statement which has been a symbol of the resistance exercised by the north against the governments regional lockdown]

Following the second wave of COVID-19 in Britain, Boris Johnson has pursued a strategy of containment within regions with rising cases of the virus. Outlined through three tiers of lockdown measures, with three being the most extreme, the Conservative government hopes to prevent further national lockdown by localising coronavirus restrictions. First to experience these measures was the Liverpool City Region, with closures implemented across the hospitality sector, mixing of households banned, and travelling outside of this area prohibited. Lancashire followed suit a few days later. Yet, despite Greater Manchester experiencing ‘very high’ transmission rates, attempts to implement further lockdown measures have failed due to Mayor Andy Burnham’s refusal to accept government advice.

Speaking to the BBC, Burnham stated the North would not be treated as ‘canaries’ in the coal mine for the government’s regional lockdown strategy. He explained that the reality of these measures would demand closures within hospitality that would jeopardise employment and the economy. Favouring a national lockdown, the Mayor of Manchester dismissed the Government’s plan for tier three restrictions, demanding a support package that would protect the welfare of Manchester’s residents. The cost to livelihood caused by further lockdown in his view would not be worth the benefits; as little scientific evidence has been presented to support this course of action.

Westminster has criticised this strong opposition to the PM’s regional strategy. Dominic Raab accused Andy Burnham of ‘holding the government over a barrel’ as he refused to concede, whilst the PM himself suggested as each day passes, more people will die. Yet, there is undeniably a case to be made in support of the Mayor’s dissent.

Economically, the government restrictions as they stand are simply not enough. The New Income Support Scheme proposed by Rishi Sunak would only provide employers with 66% of subsidised wages to support furloughed staff rather than the initial 80%. This could result in more redundancies, business closures and ultimately poverty in already challenging times. In addition to this, it has been suggested by one of Manchester’s local leaders that it would cost £62 million per month to fund the difference between what the region has been offered and what it needs, suggesting that despite the high figure, there has been little consideration of the financial realities of regional lockdown.

There is also a debate surrounding the effectiveness of this strategy, as previously mentioned. Manchester has been living under tier 2 restrictions, as defined by the new tier system for more than two months. Regardless, cases have continued to rise whilst the local economy and peoples’ well-being has suffered, suggesting that the government’s current approach is not strong enough to combat the spread of the virus. Alternatively, Labour leader Keir Starmer has proposed the implementation of a two week ‘circuit breaker’ to contain the virus nationally and not simply target regions to protect the economy. This proposal, suggested by SAGE in mid-September has not only been supported by the opposition and science, but has also recently been adopted by Welsh authorities to resolve their current situation. So, the presentation of the North as a sacrificial lamb for risky government coronavirus policy cannot be said to be unfounded.

The heart of the issue is not however simply about money or a lack of clarity. Andy Burnham himself has stated that he would not roll over if presented with a cheque. This is a much deeper issue, rooted in Westminster’s failure to acknowledge or understand the needs of North England. Manchester, alongside Liverpool and Lancashire are being experimented upon with the implementation of stricter measures, whilst the Home Counties with similar rates of infection operate as business as normal.

What Manchester’s response to the tiered local restrictions highlights is that while cases are rising exponentially, so is national disunity and distrust. Boris Johnson blames Andy Burnham for his stubborn opposition, yet this would be a good moment for the Prime Minister to look inward and reflect on the historic unfair treatment of the North. Contempt was the word Burnham used to describe Westminster’s perception of Northern England. This is quite frankly a fair assessment. Lancashire’s £42 million support package, though ostensibly generous, has been described by local labour councillors as ‘not enough’, and some have claimed they were ‘bullied and blackmailed’ into accepting the package. Blame should not lie with the local leaders but instead with a government who fails to consider the needs of regions that exist beyond the walls of the South East.

As tensions rise between the PM and Mayor of Manchester, so do regional tensions. Boris Johnson’s pressure on Manchester to concede to the whims of Westminster reflect a wider trend in British politics. As Britain’s industry shifted to the South in the 1970s, the North-South divide emerged and so did strains upon the fate of the union. Professor Colin Copus, an expert in local democracy has stated that he has seen no movement towards devolution in the North that could replicate measures in Wales and Scotland – despite consistent government commitments to establishing the ‘Northern powerhouse.’ And, while the coalition’s introduction of Metro Mayors in cities of the North was well-intentioned, it means nothing if they lack a voice in Westminster when a national crisis arises.

In addition to the distrust the North feels towards Westminster due to their failure to consider their circumstances and concerns, rising poverty is also a pertinent issue. Protecting the economy from further recession should undeniably be a high priority on the government’s agenda, but Andy Burnham’s reluctance to place this over the lives of his region’s residents is a testament to his character and the foundations of his policy. Infant mortality is rising in Liverpool, and 68,000 new claims for universal credit highlight how consistent austerity and a lack of funding in the North has resulted in the suffering of ordinary people. Manchester faces similar circumstances. The government’s regional lockdown policy is a gamble, and the leaders Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire alike have had to weigh up the impact this risk would have on those in poverty. The burden of lockdown would lie more heavily on the working class population, and decisions made in Westminster need to reflect this, whilst understanding regional differences and needs.

Regardless of the outcome of the showdown between the Mayor of Manchester and the Prime Minister, it is clear that Manchester is at a crossroads with its relationship to Westminster. Burnham’s act of defiance is illustrative of how the North refuses to be viewed with contempt, and demands his, and other regional leaders voices be heard. National unity cannot come from an unequal relationship between Westminster and it’s devolved authorities, and loyalty to a centralised government should not be unconditional. Nor, should regional authorities be bullied into accepting government policies if they will not protect or serve their people.

References –

‘The North will not be treated like canaries in a coalmine’, Nigel Barlow

Boris Johnson made it worse, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/16/the-guardian-view-on-the-north-south-divide-boris-johnson-made-it-worse

Boris Johnson Warns He will Intervene,

https://www.ft.com/content/26dafabb-118c-4506-92c1-d83e565f94f0

Northern leaders like me are being left in the cold over Covid decision-making, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/09/northern-leaders-covid-pandemic-north-south-divide

Is Covid deepening north-south divide?

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/09/theres-quite-a-bit-of-resentment-is-covid-deepening-north-south-divide

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54594885

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54546867

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