Coronavirus: Future local lockdowns should be negotiated with councils, not imposed by diktat from London, says mayor of Greater Manchester

Row as council leaders say they were overruled on coronavirus restrictions by ministers listening to Conservative MPs 

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Saturday 29 August 2020 09:30
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Coronavirus in numbers

Future local coronavirus lockdowns in England should be negotiated by government with local authorities, not imposed by diktat from London, the mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has said.

Mr Burnham accused ministers of “playing politics” with lockdown and ignoring local knowledge and expertise in decisions over the relaxation of restrictions in the north of England announced on Friday.

His demand came as health secretary Matt Hancock warned he was not ruling out “very extensive” local clampdowns - or even a return to national lockdown - if there was evidence of resurgent Covid-19 infection this winter. Boris Johnson has described a “whack-a-mole” strategy where measures can be imposed swiftly on limited areas to damp down flare-ups of the disease before they spread.

Coronavirus restrictions were lifted last night by the Department of Health in parts of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, despite complaints from local authorities who say they were “overruled” by Westminster.

The department said incidence rates had fallen across a number of areas including Bolton, Stockport, Trafford, Burnley and Hyndburn, leading to an easing of rules that banned gatherings of more than one household in homes and private gardens.

But Mr Burnham said it appeared that more weight had been given to the opinions of Conservative MPs than local authority leaders and public health experts on the ground.

In Trafford, he said that the director of public health advised politicians to “err on the side of caution” and delay any change, as infections remain volatile at a highly sensitive time when schools are reopening their doors to students.

Mr Burnham told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The issue here is not necessarily the judgement, because obviously people could come down on these either way on that.

“The issue is how this decision was taken, and the decision by government to impose, effectively ignoring the views of the director of public health and a council.

“Something similar happened in Bradford, where members of parliament were listened to more than the leader of the council and directors of public health.

“If we're going to have extensive local lockdowns throughout the rest of this year - as the health secretary is warning today - they must not be done in this way, effectively imposed by Whitehall.

“It has to be done by negotiation and agreement between national and local government, and that has got to be a core principle on which we move forward.”

Mr Burnham said local leaders should not necessarily have the final say on whether to impose or relax restrictions.

But he said he would expect Mr Hancock, before announcing any decision, to speak to council leaders, who were “the most important voice in this, because councils have to deal with all the complexity of rising numbers of cases”.

He said Greater Manchester authorities had worked with central government on the introduction of local lockdown measures.

But he said: “Now they're going a different way, which is releasing these restrictions, by it would seem listening to their MPs and not necessarily listening to the wishes of directors of public health and councils.

“In this situation, where politics is being played with these issues, I just think that is entirely the wrong approach. These decisions must only be guided by public health, and certainly not low politics.”

Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, said it was right for ministers to take account of the views of MPs whose contact with constituents allowed them to gauge the levels of distress being caused by extended lockdowns.

He told Today: “Members of parliament very often are very much in touch with their constituents and understand that very personal, very human, level of concern.

“So they are picking up the fact that people are really really worried and really distressed that they haven't been able to be in touch with the people they care most about - their closest family their children, their parents. And so they're delighted when you get an opening-up like this that allows them to have that basic human contact which we normally take for granted.”

He added: “I hope we're going to see a continuing move to get back towards normality, allowing more people to have those normal family relationships, be able to get on with their businesses.”

Sir Graham, whose constituency covers part of Trafford, said the council had failed to seek consensus with neighbouring boroughs in a situation where only two people were in intensive care in local hospitals and recent rises in infections were as low as 12-15 people in a population of nearly 250,000.

“There's no evidence at the moment that people are actually getting very ill and having to go to hospital with this,” he said. “What we seem to be picking up is far more low-level cases.”

He added: “The background to this is that the government asked local authorities to seek consensus on the way forward for these local restrictions and Trafford Council didn't seek consensus.

“I was essentially told on Tuesday that they wanted a one-week extension. I said I wasn't very happy with that and I wanted some more data. And then on Wednesday I was simply told - before the data was given to me - ‘Now we've decided we want a two-week extension’.

“So a completely unilateral approach, and I’m glad the government's taken a more nuanced approach.”

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