Covid-19 Northern Rebellion

Financial support is vital for millions this winter, but Greater Manchester's standoff asks deeper questions about the legitimacy of a government which is bullying and lying its way through the Covid-19 crisis – writes Salford’s city-mayor Paul Dennett

It’s easy to get fixated on the money in the recent row between Greater Manchester and government over Tier 3 restrictions. A lot of the public debate has revolved around the £5 million gap between Greater Manchester’s ask of government, and the £60 million they were willing to give us to provide support for Greater Manchester residents in the event that harsher lockdown measures must be brought to bear on the local economy. But really, this is a side-event to the real showdown.

The rate of Covid-19 transmissions are on the rise across the country, and particularly in the North West which has been under intermediate restrictions without halt for 3 months already. 408,000 Greater Manchester residents have claimed furlough since it was introduced (with 42,000 of those claims being from my city, Salford – amounting to 25.6% of the working population).

Universal Credit claims have increased by 76% and unemployment doubled between March and May. There are rocky times ahead for the Greater Manchester economy – fuelled by embedded poverty and deprivation, the legacy of the destruction of our industrial base since the end of the 1980s. In nine of the ten local authority areas of Greater Manchester, salaries fall below the national average.

Although Greater Manchester leaders do not oppose measures to deal with the virus, including further lockdown restrictions, it’s fair to say that the stakes are high for our city-region – and we need to get the detail right.

That’s why, when government announced their consultation with regional areas on the precipice of Tier 3 restrictions, Greater Manchester did its homework and approached government with a detailed and evidence-based appraisal of what we needed to protect our residents. We know that if economic protections aren’t put in place, not only do Greater Manchester residents risk losing their jobs and sources of income – but that the knock-on impact of these changes will also have a devastating impact on the spread of Covid-19.

If low-paid workers forced to subsist on two-thirds of their incomes up to the end of the financial year this could mean a huge explosion of homelessness, evictions and mortgage defaults. The threat of isolation without adequate income support may discourage employees from taking due precautions for their own safety and that of others.

After three months of lockdown, cooperation of residents with restrictions is already at an all-time low and effective further measures will need resources for enforcement as well. To make this work, Greater Manchester have calculated the cost at £90 million to cover the anticipated five month period of Tier 3 – and these are the workings we presented to government for discussion, ready for compromise.

Yesterday morning, Mayor Burnham presented government with an ask of just £75 million towards that £90 million – in the full knowledge we would have to source the remainder from other sources. But government have refused to engage with us on the data and the evidence. Not only have they refused to examine our estimates, they have also refused to provide their own.

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Where we have raised concerns regarding their knowledge of our local hospital capacity, they will not discuss it. Where we’ve questioned the focus on hospitality industries as a primary source of transmission, they haven’t taken us up. Where we have repeated the concerns raised by their own Chief Medical Officer regarding the effectiveness of their proposals, they have refused to engage.

The only thing government have been willing to discuss with us in these so-called negotiations are the arbitrary numbers they have plucked from thin air – the money they want us to accept, be happy for and keep quiet about.

The past eleven days have been negotiations in name only. In reality, what is clear is that government decided what they wanted from us and what they were going to give us in advance of any conversation, and without consulting any evidence.

These negotiations are little more than a thin cover, a front to share responsibility for the suffering that is coming down the road. Always, throughout the discussions, the threat of ‘No Deal’ was hung like a sword of Damocles above our heads – that should government tire of our incessant questioning, we would bear responsibility in the event that they walked away.

So although the money is important as a fully-costed sum to support residents, what’s just as important in this situation are the questions this crisis has raised about the government’s handling of Covid-19 and its treatment of those who question its authority. How much longer can local government, health professionals, civil servants and other arms of the state be expected to enforce unevidenced and under-resourced policy wheezes in the name of tackling the Covid-19 crisis?

How much damage is the government’s ‘take it or leave it’ approach to dealing with its own government departments, the healthcare system and local authorities doing to the professionalism and culture of the British state? What is the accumulated moral and material damage being caused to this country by the culture of subservience to bullying behaviour and fear of presenting the facts?

What price does truth have in public discourse? Can we continue to pretend the endless array of ‘consultations’ are anything other than Whitehall diktat handed from on high? We are being asked to weigh these existential costs against a meagre £15 million the government was unwilling to pay Greater Manchester – £15 million in the light of the hundreds of billions this government has spent, and in many instances wasted, in the response to Covid-19.

This isn’t just about making the restrictions government are proposing effective and workable. It’s also about protecting the jobs and livelihoods of residents, and of dignity in the face of bullying. It’s about fighting for the people who no-one else will fight for. It’s about valuing a political system in which the truth is more important than sucking up to power.

In a world where the value of that truth is usually understated, it’s worth reminding ourselves that sunlight is often the best disinfectant. There will neither be justice nor competent handling of this national crisis while political leaders, professionals and the public are afraid to speak the truth. This is what’s truly at stake in the Northern Rebellion.

By Paul Dennett

First published by Tribune on 21 October 2020

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