South Yorkshire leaders condemn 'tawdry' tier 3 process

Josh Halliday and Helen Pidd
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

Leaders in the Sheffield city region have attacked the government’s “tawdry” and divisive approach to imposing tough coronavirus restrictions, saying its £41m deal is far less than needed and tied up in red tape.

Chris Read, the leader of Rotherham borough council, said the region required £90m to help businesses, low-paid workers and for test and trace but that the government was not prepared to negotiate any higher than £41m.

He said that government officials had explicitly told local leaders that they could not use this fund to top up wages so that no one earned less than the minimum wage.

“I found the whole process to be pretty tawdry. It wasn’t a genuine negotiation by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

The deal means about 1.4 million people in Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley will be subjected to England’s tightest coronavirus restrictions from Saturday. Pubs, casinos, betting shops and soft play centres will close under the rules.

The city region, led by the Labour mayor, Dan Jarvis, secured a total of £41m from the government in return for entering tier 3 restrictions. The package includes £11m for enhanced test and trace and local enforcement and £30m to support businesses.

But there was immediate criticism of the government’s approach to the talks from Labour council leaders. Read said the discussions “just got sillier and sillier and sillier” as officials repeatedly refused to allow local leaders to use the money for specific purposes.

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“We knew the government weren’t going to be throwing money at us – we’re not daft,” he said. “They say, ‘We’ll give you a lump sum of money,’ which sort of seems OK until you start asking, ‘What can we do with this money? Could we use this money to top up the income support scheme so people aren’t earning less than minimum wage?’ [The government say:] ‘No, that’s national policy.’”

Read said leaders had asked whether they could use at least £5m in unspent business grants to help businesses and low-earners, but the government refused and clawed the money back. They also asked whether they could repurpose a devolution fund for Covid support or arrange a rent holiday for commercial tenants, but the government refused.

He said it was still unclear what the £30m business support, which was increased from an initial offer of £20m, could actually be used for and that discussions were continuing. “I don’t call it tawdry lightly,” Read said. “They knew some time last week broadly speaking what all these packages looked like and for whatever reason – I can only say it’s for political cover – they’ve wanted council leaders to give their blessing to that. But it isn’t a negotiation in any recognisable way.”

Julie Dore, the leader of Sheffield city council, said the £41m would “not allow us to provide the support for people that is needed”. She said local leaders had requested “significantly greater financial support in addition to the national schemes” but had to settle for the government’s standard offer.

Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, confirmed on Wednesday that local authorities would be offered a standard financial package based on £8 a head for test and trace and an additional £20 a head on business support.

Dore said she would continue to plead with the government to return to the same level of financial support as was available during the national lockdown. She added: “We can and will get through this but we will only do so by pulling together. The government’s approach at this moment in time will not bring about this togetherness.”

Jarvis said: “Collective action was the only practical choice to keep everyone in our region safe. If restrictions are effective, individual local authorities will be able to move to lower alert levels as soon as it is safe to do so, in consultation with fellow local leaders, myself and national government.”

While Greater Manchester and its mayor, Andy Burnham, fought a public and increasingly bitter battle over accepting tier 3 restrictions, Jarvis and his South Yorkshire colleagues conducted their negotiations behind closed doors.

Tier one – medium

  • The “rule of six” applies, meaning socialising in groups larger than six people is prohibited whether indoors or outdoors.

  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work and are not counted as being part of the six-person limit.

  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.

  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered by phone or online.

  • Schools and universities remain open.

  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.

  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).

  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors, and – if the rule of six is followed – indoors.

Tier two – high

  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting.

  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.

  • The rule of six continues to apply for socialising outdoors, for instance in a garden or public space like a park or beach.

  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.

  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered online or by phone.

  • Schools and universities remain open.

  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.

  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).

  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with those they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport.

  • Travel is permitted to amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but people are advised to reduce the number of journeys where possible.

Tier three – very high

  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody they do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting, private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events.

  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.

  • The rule of six continues to apply to outdoor public spaces, such as parks, beaches, public gardens or sports venues.

  • Pubs and bars are only permitted to remain open to operate as restaurants, in which case alcohol can only be served as part of a substantial meal.

  • Schools and universities remain open.

  • Places of worship remain open but household mixing is not permitted.

  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people attending (15 and 30 respectively) but wedding receptions are not allowed.

  • The rules for exercise classes and organised sport are the same as in tier 2. They can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport. However, in Merseyside, gyms were ordered to close when it entered tier 3.

  • Travelling outside a very high alert level area or entering a very high alert level area should be avoided other than for things such as work, education or youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if travelling through as part of a longer journey.

  • Residents of a tier 3 area should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK, while people who live in a tier 1 or tier 2 area should avoid staying overnight in a very high alert level area.

South Yorkshire leaders wrote to Boris Johnson with a five-point plan on 9 October, which included demands for “local furlough” for workers in businesses who are unable to work or see their hours cut as a result of the restrictions.

Related: Andy Burnham hits out at Tory MPs over Covid negotiations criticism

But in the interim the Treasury ruled out any changes to the national job support scheme, which offers to pay two-thirds of wages of workers whose firms close because of tier 3 restrictions.

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Based on Jenrick’s formula, the Sheffield city region secured a slightly more generous deal than the first two regions to go into tier 3, Lancashire and Liverpool. Its package works out at around £29 per head across a population of 1.4 million people.

Doncaster’s Labour mayor, Ros Jones, described the deal as “news that no one wanted to hear, but there is an undeniable truth in that our infection rates are spiralling upwards and are more than 260 in 100,000 and continuing to rise”.

The government has been contacted for comment.