Mayors across the north of England have rejected the government’s financial package for areas in local lockdown, warning it would cause long-term economic devastation.
Mayors from Greater Manchester and the North of Tyne, Sheffield city and Liverpool city combined authorities are calling on northern MPs to mount a parliamentary challenge against the new lockdown measures, which are expected to be unveiled on Monday.
Speaking in a joint press conference with other northern leaders on Saturday afternoon, the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, said he would consider legal action should such a challenge fail.
Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool metropolitan region, said he had been told by the government it would announce a tier-three lockdown for Liverpool on Monday, to come into force on Wednesday. The area currently has about 540 cases per 100,000 people.
Other mayors were unclear about which tier they would be placed under.
The mayors criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, expressing their support for the accusation by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, that Boris Johnson had presided “over “serial incompetence”.
“I’ve been at pains throughout this to say: I’ve been in government dealing with a pandemic. There’s no perfect response and I don’t envy the government,” said Burnham. “But things being briefed to newspapers or issued late at night without explanation or detail, and those things really affect people in a fundamental way. That is incompetence in my view, and it’s serial because it keeps happening.”
The metro mayor of the North of Tyne combined authority, Jamie Driscoll, cited the failings of the test-and-trace system as evidence of the government’s incompetence, saying: “Getting this virus under control depends upon an effective test-and-trace system and it’s not even close [to that], never mind world-beating.”
Under current plans, those who cannot work due to the local lockdown measures will be offered two-thirds of their salary, rather than the 80% offered under the original national furlough scheme.
The government will also increase the support grants for businesses under local lockdowns from up to £1,500 every three weeks to up to £3,000 per month, but Burnham warned that this “would not be enough to save businesses who are on a knife-edge”.
The local leaders have written to MPs of northern constituencies to ask them to bring about a separate vote and debate on this financial package in parliament. They hope the package will be rejected and replaced with more expansive support measures.
Rotheram called for the 80% of pay offered in the original scheme to be restored. “If 80% was the right benchmark in March, nothing has changed. If it’s right then, it’s right now,” he said.
Burnham echoed that call, saying: “If you work in a bar or kitchen in a pub, on possibly living wage, or more likely minimum wage, how is it possible to live on two-thirds of your wages when the government forced your place of work to close?” he said. “You can’t choose to pay two-thirds of rent or bills.”
Burnham said to accept the measures would be to “render our businesses to failure and collapse”, and would lead to a rise in redundancy and damage prospects for long-term recovery.
“That amounts to the precise opposite of what this government was elected to do – it will level down and worsen the north-south divide,” he said.
Burnham also called for better support for self-employed people, greater evidence to be presented to those living under local lockdowns about why the measures were in place, and stronger enforcement powers.
He added he was angered to be told the financial package was “non-negotiable”. “I’m sorry, but I’m not accepting a statement of that kind,” he said. “If they’re in discussion with us, they’re in discussion about everything.”
Driscoll agreed. “You have to make obeying the restrictions financially viable for people,” he said, warning the country was facing the hardest NHS winter on record. “The financial support is part of keeping people safe.”
He said the local leaders felt like “passengers” rather than “partners” of the government.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP and Sheffield city region combined authority mayor, described the government response as a “top-down, overly centralised approach that has not been as effective as it could have been”.
He said “frustrations bubbled over this week” when local leaders found out about the new messages through newspaper reports, rather than policy consultations. “We are part of the solution and need to be involved at an early point in the government decision-making process,” he said.