When I started looking at this blog earlier this week, the key story was that Liverpool was being placed into a strict local lockdown to suppress Covid-19 restrictions. It stood alone in the country in facing the severest regional restrictions. The fact that local leaders asked for these measures to be implemented will have been of little solace to communities facing these severe restrictions on their freedoms.
Days later, the ink is barely dry on the three-tiered regional lockdown policy and we are already seeing major shifts in the restrictions for some areas. London will have spent less than a week with ‘medium’ restrictions, before shifting up to tier 2 on Saturday.
Greater Manchester is also likely to join Liverpool in a strict regional lockdown, although this has been fiercely resisted in a strong display of local cross-party unity. Conservatives are generally opposing this move in civil liberties grounds while Labour politicians are focused on the level of financial support on offer.
What has fostered fury from local leaders has been the Government’s approach to communications, or perceived lack of it. There have been too many instances of proposed measures being briefed to the media before any engagement with local political stakeholders, who are charged with leading the responses to COVID in their areas.
It has become a running joke that MPs and councillors have had to check #tomorrowspaperstoday on Twitter to find out what is being proposed. What also doesn’t help is that MPs have been invited to the wrong briefings for their area, or in some cases haven’t been invited at all. This all fuels a perception that the Government doesn’t care about the views of local government. The regular government statements about locally-led responses have sounded increasingly hollow as the week has gone on.
Although unrelated to the COVID outbreak, the government’s announcement late last Friday that it was to invite unitary authorities in the West of England to submit proposals to form single tier authorities in Somerset have also caused bemusement at the government’s comms handling.
In other developments, the Welsh government plans to ban many English visitors and has indicated that residents in west Wales will be ‘on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas’. The Welsh First Minister has sought justification for this move by stating that his letters to the PM, calling for UK wide travel restrictions, have gone answered. But with the police already saying the ban is ‘unenforceable’ it comes across as simply an excuse to erect a hard border between England and Wales. The fact that the SNP is also considering similar measures for visitors to Scotland does not dissuade me of the motives behind such measures.
Leaving aside the effectiveness of the policy of lockdowns, I can appreciate the argument that if the state is forcing industries such as hospitality to close its doors, it is only fair that it supports those employees with a continuation of the furlough scheme.
It’s also been suggested that jobs and businesses in regional lockdown areas are being sacrificed to protect other areas of the country. Whilst accepting that furlough support needs to be uplifted to 80%, this language is divisive and populist.
Both sides of this argument and the fragility of the top-down approach to the COVID response are summed up very well in this thread by the MEN’s Jennifer Williams.
After a good sleep (and an even better curry) and in the full knowledge I’m probably going to have to work today, have been thinking about the past couple of days. So, a thread
— Jennifer Williams (@JenWilliamsMEN) October 10, 2020
All of this leads us to ask what the government’s long-term strategy is on Covid-19 and whether it is capable of a coherent response that involves city leaders and devolved administrations. It appears that six months into the crisis they are still in firefighting mode.
Whilst criticising the idea of a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if the Government ending up implementing one.
Whatever route is taken, it is surely time to agree that regional and local leaders need to be more closely involved in taking the decisions that affect their areas.
It will require a change in mindset. It’s not going to happen now, when will it?