North of England leaders vow to oppose lockdown without financial support

Josh Halliday and Helen Pidd
·4-min read

Ministers are facing open revolt from leaders in northern England over fresh coronavirus restrictions due to be announced within days, with mayors, MPs, council chiefs and business groups vowing to fiercely oppose any new measures without substantial financial support.

Pubs, bars and restaurants across Merseyside, Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire and the north-east could be forced to close next week in an effort to slow the region’s soaring infection rate.

The leaders of the big northern cities are planning a formal alliance in opposition to any attempt by government to force restrictions on them without significant Treasury funding.

Such is the level of anger among local leaders that some are prepared to take the position of refusing to endorse tough new measures expected to be announced next week by the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, said she was exhausted from trying to work with the government and feared Leeds and nearby Bradford would be subject to “tier 3” measures, shutting down all hospitality.

“We’re working with both hands tied behind our backs, trying to do the best thing locally, and then you get the government just leaking information to the press. It’s so depressing. I’m sure it’s a tactic too: put it out there, soften people up, see what the reaction is,” she said.

MPs received a briefing from the government’s Covid taskforce on Thursday warning that the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care in the north of England would surpass the April peak if infections continued rising at the current rate.

They were also shown early research by Public Health England suggesting that bars, pubs and restaurants account for 41% of cases in which two or more under-30s had visited the same venue in the week before testing positive. This fell to a quarter of infections across all age groups, the MPs were told.

Blake said she was not convinced hospitality was a key cause of infections. “Up to this point our evidence is pointing to the higher risk of infection being in households and confined indoor spaces,” she said.

Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, said he was losing patience with the government after the planned shutdown leaked on Thursday, days after Hancock promised to improve communication with local leaders.

Alongside the leaders of Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, Burnham is demanding that local authorities be allowed to see details of the restrictions and any proposed financial support before they are announced. “There is no way at all I will sign off on the closure of any business without a local furlough scheme,” he said.

default

More than 19,000 businesses in West Yorkshire would require financial support if Leeds and Bradford go into the highest level of a three-tier lockdown system, with leaked plans suggesting tier 3 may include the closure of all hospitality venues and no social contact between households. In Liverpool, officials said 28,000 jobs were on the line.

Blake said northern cities had formed an alliance to ensure that an economic package of compensation was in place “to make sure that our city centres aren’t decimated”.

She said: “It’s difficult to say at this precise moment what we will do but there is real concern and real anger coming from the business community in terms of what is expected of them.”

The Northern Powerhouse 11, which represents businesses across the north, wrote to the government demanding “urgent coordinated action to safeguard our communities and to protect our local economies from falling over”.

The Guardian understands that the majority of northern England, from Barrow in Cumbria to Merseyside, Greater Manchester, much of Lancashire and Yorkshire and most of the north-east, as well as Nottinghamshire in the Midlands, will be under some form of coronavirus restrictions under the new planned system.

Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool city region, said: “Significant restrictions like those being proposed must also come with significant financial support for local businesses that will be affected, local councils who are leading our public health efforts and for NHS test and trace.”

Simon Fell, the Conservative MP for Barrow-in-Furness, said he and local leaders had agreed to ask the government for restrictions on household mixing to be put in place in Barrow, where the infection rate has topped 200 cases per 100,000 people, but not across the whole county of Cumbria.

Fell is part of a growing Tory rebellion on the nationwide 10pm curfew, which he said was having the opposite effect to what was intended. “I haven’t seen the science for that. Frankly my concerns is that it’s spilling people out into the streets and into house parties and it’s those uncontrolled environments where the infections are spreading. Looking at the data, we are not seeing cases in Covid-secure venues,” he said.