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Explainer: What's going on in Manchester and why are politicians rejecting government-imposed lockdown?

Regional revolt is threatening Boris Johnson’s pandemic plans.

Shoppers on Market Street in Manchester
Shoppers on Market Street in Manchester
Image: PA

EARLIER THIS WEEK, the UK government rolled out a new tiered lockdown system to combat the spread of the virus across England.

That plan already seems to be in tatters with politicians in the north of the country frustrating Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to place badly-affected areas like Greater Manchester on the highest level of alert.

In recent days, several English mayors, including Labour Party politician Andy Burnham, have point blank refused to let the government introduce the heightened restrictions.

But what’s actually going on and where is it all going?

Who is Andy Burnham?

You may have seen footage doing the rounds on social media of a bespectacled man giving an impassioned speech about the British government’s treatment of the north of England.

That’s Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

From Liverpool originally, he’s a former UK Labour Party MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester, who served as culture secretary and also as health secretary in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet.

On two occasions, Burnham unsuccessfully ran for party leader. He was beaten into fourth place by Ed Miliband in 2010 and into second place by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

Burnham served as Corbyn’s shadow home secretary before giving up his seat ahead of the 2017 election to run for mayor of Manchester.

Receiving a whopping 63% of the vote, he was elected to the position in May 2017.

Where do I know him from?

This isn’t the first headline-grabbing speech that Burnham has delivered so chances are, you’ve seen him on the news before, particularly if you’re a Liverpool supporter.

Despite being a lifelong Everton fan, Burnham is a very popular man among Kopites on Merseyside and abroad.

This is to do with his role in getting the Brown government to deliver a second inquest into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football fans lost their lives.

In 2009, after being heckled by Liverpool fans at a Hillsborough commemoration in Anfield, he delivered a speech to parliament calling for a fresh inquiry into the deaths and the ensuing cover-up by South Yorkshire Police.

The inquest concluded in 2012 that no fans were responsible for the disaster and that a “lack of police control” caused the stadium crush. 

It was a landmark finding, which led to official government apologies from then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

Burnham received a very different reception in 2014 when he returned to Anfield where he delivered an emotional speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

So what’s he up to now?

In a nutshell, Burnham has rejected the UK government’s new strategy for dealing with the pandemic.

Under the new plan, unveiled by Downing Street on Monday, different parts of England will be placed on three different levels of restrictions: medium, high and very high alert.

Local infection rates dictate the severity of the regional lockdowns.

At the ‘medium alert’ level, standard UK Covid restrictions apply including a ban on social gatherings of more than six people and weddings of more than 15. 

At the ‘high alert’ level, people are asked not to meet anyone indoors from outside their social or family bubble. Most restaurants and pubs can stay open but exercise classes and sport can only take place indoors if it’s possible for people to avoid mixing with anyone outside their own bubble.

At the ‘very high alert’ level, pubs and bars have to close, weddings are banned and people are asked not to travel outside of their own ‘very high alert’ area or to another one.

That’s England but what about the rest?

Each individual region within the UK is following its own rules.

Scotland is supposed to introduce a similar tiered system later in October.

Wales is considering a ‘stay-at-home fortnight’ circuit breaker lockdown.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has gone into a partial, four-week lockdown.

Ok, so which parts of England are in what tier?

At the outset of the new tiered system, only Liverpool — where the incidence rate of the virus is currently 642.3 per 100,000 people — was on the ‘very high alert’ level. 

Yesterday, Lancashire also agreed to move to that third tier.

Most parts of England are in the first tier or ‘medium alert’ level.

Newcastle, Nottingham and, as of today, London and neighbouring Essex are currently in the second tier or ‘high alert level’.

Crucially, Manchester — where the incidence of the virus is currently 449.3 per 100,000 people — is also at this level although owing to rising case numbers, the government wants to move it to ‘very high alert’ as soon as possible.

But talks between Downing Street and local Manchester politicians, aimed at brokering some sort of agreement on a lockdown, ended in bitter disagreement earlier this week.

Sounds fairly standard so what’s Burnham’s problem?

Burnham is no Covid truther or conspiracy theorist and he’s not against the idea of lockdown in general.

As he said himself during his speech outside Manchester Central Library “Yes, we want to control the virus. I’ve said personally that we might need to look at a national circuit breaker.”

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Source: Guardian News/YouTube

That would be “preferable” he said, to the government’s current plan, which he described as an “unfunded, risky regional” strategy.

So in a nutshell, his issue is with the level of support that the government has offered to Greater Manchester to help businesses survive stringent ‘very high alert’ level restrictions.

With his native Liverpool in the highest alert level, Burnham has also expressed resentment about the treatment of the north of England generally.

In remarks made to the media outside the library, he said that the government has treated the region,  “with contempt” in recent weeks.

“I think you do have to ask the question, earlier in the year — when the cases were high in London and they hadn’t developed everywhere else — we went into national lockdown. Now we have that situation in reverse, where the cases are high in the north, but they’re growing elsewhere.

“So, why are we not having the same applied? I think different rules are applied always to the north of England,” he said.

So what does he want?

Burnham wants the Tory government to give local businesses an 80% wage subsidy so they can pay staff if they do move to the highest level.

This is in line with payments they received under the original UK ‘furlough’ system rolled out during the first set of lockdown restrictions earlier in the year.

That scheme, like our own Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme, has been tapered since August.

Instead, the UK government has offered to cover 66% of wages and to give affected businesses cash grants of up to £3,000 a month.

This, Burnham said, “is just not good enough”.

What happens next?

Well, no one is quite sure but Boris Johnson has been very clear that third-tier restrictions could be unilaterally imposed on Greater Manchester if Burnham doesn’t soften his stance.

Neighbouring county Lancashire joined tier 3 on Friday so the pressure is mounting on local politicians to put something in place.

But Burnham isn’t alone in his distaste for the government’s response and he’s showing no signs of backing down.

Today, he along with the Labour mayors of North Tyne and Liverpool issued a joint statement, doubling down on their calls for increased financial supports.

“We are all united in fighting for an 80% furlough scheme for all people affected by regional lockdowns, wherever they are in the country,” the statement read.

The government has argued standard social welfare benefits would ensure those on the lowest incomes got 90% of their wages.

But the mayors have said, “It doesn’t help everybody and takes weeks to come through. It will not prevent severe hardship for thousands of low paid workers before Christmas.” 

 

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