Greater Manchester mayor stands off against Westminster in COVID-19 lockdown battle
— 2 minute read — By Sam Portillo
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has received national attention for refusing Westminster’s order to lock down local areas without additional financial support for businesses and furloughed employees.
The UK Government had wanted to place the city region, containing almost 3 million people, under the most austere set of restrictions in England – now known as Tier 3 – meaning residents would be banned from socialising with people from outside their household bubble, and pubs, clubs and bars would only be able to trade as restaurants, serving alcohol alongside a “substantial meal”.
In response to the deadlock, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick said “we have offered an extensive package of support for local people and businesses, proportionate to the approach we have taken in the Liverpool city region and Lancashire and in addition to the wider national support”.
With no agreement being reached by the 20th October deadline, the Greater Manchester Mayor invited the media to his own press conference, outdoors, one hour before PM Boris Johnson had the chance to speak to television audiences himself.
The Lancashire-born Labour politician had asked for £65m, believing such a sum to be sufficient to keep businesses afloat and protect the incomes of furloughed employees, but the Westminster government refused to give more than £60m. Still speaking to a live television audience, Mr Burnham learned of the UK Government’s plan to impose a local lockdown on Friday 23rd October and negotiate with individual councils. “This is no way to run a country in a national crisis… grinding people down, trying to accept the least they can get away with,” he said. “£22m to fight the situation that we are in is frankly disgraceful”.
With no additional funding agreed, Greater Manchester was legally bound to impose Tier 3 restrictions later that week. Two days later, however, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced a new package of funding allowing businesses affected by Tier 2 restrictions to claim backdated support. Despite the new tier-based labels, North West England had been living under such restrictions through September, meaning many businesses were indeed eligible for the support.
Mr Burnham’s resolve in dealing with the Conservative government and transparency in addressing local people will sit well with Greater Manchester voters, and the region will likely claim a victory over Westminster. The observation that such support was only provided once London was scheduled to enter Tier 2 lockdown, too, will add fuel to Burnham’s argument that the North of England is consistently side-lined as less important.
Boris Johnson, Sunak and other Conservative leaders will feel they have won a victory of their own, asserting their dominance over a Labour-run regional administration and providing support on their own terms. Such a blockbuster battle – televised and dramatic as it was – highlights the way in which the coronavirus response has inevitably become a political battle, representing more than just a public health issue – equally evoking questions about power, devolution and control.