Manchester resists government move to tighten Covid restrictions
Boris Johnson’s attempt to introduce tighter regional lockdowns through consensus to control a surge in coronavirus cases has hit a wall after Greater Manchester refused to agree to the measures.
The government has the power to impose restrictions, closing pubs and other businesses, but is reluctant to do so without local support.
Manchester’s leaders are now braced for Downing Street to push the region into its toughest tier 3 category — although that will not happen on Thursday, according to officials.
The Treasury is holding out against local demands for higher compensation for workers and companies caught up in any tighter lockdown.
Andy Burnham, the mayor, and nine of the 10 Greater Manchester council leaders — all Labour — explained their refusal to agree to moving to tier 3 in a statement after a fraught call with Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, Eddie Lister, earlier on Thursday.
“Today we communicated our clear and unanimous view to the government: it is wrong to place some of the poorest parts of England in a punishing lockdown without proper support for the people and businesses affected,” they said.
“To do so will result in certain hardship, job losses and business failure. It will cause harm in a different way — to people’s mental health — and is not certain to control the virus.”
The backlash against the government saw an unusual cross-party alliance between Labour MPs and civic leaders and their Conservative counterparts in the region.
Some Tory MPs lined up in the House of Commons to attack health secretary Matt Hancock over the government’s plan.
Graham Brady, MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said: “There is widespread concern among members of parliament, council leaders and the mayor of Greater Manchester, all resisting the suggestion that tier 3 should be introduced.”
Local leaders want greater financial support for business and those that lose their jobs.
The Liverpool city region, home to 1.6m people, was placed into tier 3 on Wednesday under which pubs cannot serve food, and gyms, casinos and adult gaming centres have shut.
William Wragg, Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, said after Greater Manchester MPs held a meeting with health minister Helen Whately that “the impossible has been achieved”. “All the members of parliament, the leaders of the councils and indeed the mayor are surprisingly in agreement with one another,” he said. “But the meeting that we had earlier today was entirely pointless. I might as well have been talking to the wall.”
Mr Burnham said he was told there was not enough money to support businesses through the two-week national lockdown that the government’s scientific advisers said was the best way to control the virus.
“They are willing to sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere,” the civic leaders’ statement said. “Greater Manchester, the Liverpool city region and Lancashire are being set up as the canaries in the coal mine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy as an attempt to prevent the expense of what is truly needed.”
Conservative-run Lancashire has also had talks about entering tier 3 restrictions but refused to do so.
The government has offered to pay 66 per cent of the wages of people whose workplaces are closed and grants of up to £3,000 a month for businesses.
Greater Manchester wants 80 per cent paid, as in the original furlough scheme, 80 per cent income support for people who are self-employed “and a proper compensation scheme for businesses”.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, insisted on Thursday that the local job support was “in line with other large European economies” such as France, Germany and Spain while many workers could also top up lost earnings with the universal credit welfare benefit.