Andy Burnham accuses PM of ‘exaggerating’ Covid situation in Manchester amid stand-off with No 10 over tier 3

Remarks come as Michael Gove accuses Greater Manchester mayor of ‘political posturing’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 18 October 2020 19:38 BST
Andy Burnham accuses Boris Johnson of “exaggerating” the coronavirus situation in the region

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has accused Boris Johnson of “exaggerating” the coronavirus situation in the region as he called for an end to the “war of words” between local leaders and ministers.

His comments came amid a stand-off between politicians in Greater Manchester and No 10 over the imposition of Tier 3 measures – the most severe restrictions – including the closure of all pubs and bars.

Mr Burnham has been calling for additional economic support for the region’s residents, but on Sunday Michael Gove risked inflaming tensions as he dismissed the concerns and accused him of political "posturing”.

“I want to reach an agreement with the political leadership in Greater Manchester,” the Cabinet Office minister told Sky News. “Instead of press conferences and posturing what we need is action to save people’s lives.”

Speaking at the Downing Street’s own press conference on Friday, the prime minister warned the region’s leaders the situation was “grave” and the government could impose the more draconian measures if talks were inconclusive.

Mr Johnson said the number of Covid in-patients in Greater Manchester’s intensive care unit beds was already over 40 per cent of the number at the height of the first wave of the virus, adding: “That number will inevitably rise further, given that hospitalisation occurs two-three weeks after infection.

“On present trends, in just over two weeks there will be more Covid patients in intensive care than at the peak of the first wave. I cannot stress enough – time is of the essence. Each day that passes before action is taken means more people will go to hospital, more people will end up in intensive care, and tragically more people will die.”

Speaking on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, however, the mayor of Greater Manchester said: “It’s a serious situation but I don’t think it was the situation that was described by the prime minister on Friday evening.

“I think it was an exaggeration of the position that we’re in. Of course it’s a matter of concern, and we watch the figures very closely indeed, but the figures have been falling in Manchester itself in the last few days, across Greater Manchester up slightly but certainly not doubling every nine days.

“So let’s be careful here. I would certainly say this morning let’s step back a bit from a war of words.”

Despite the clash, Mr Burnham held talks with Sir Edward Lister, the prime minister’s senior adviser, later on Sunday, and further talks are expected on Monday in an attempt to resolve the impasse.

Of the conversations over the weekend, his spokesperson added: “The mayor had a constructive call with Sir Edward Lister”.

Mr Burnham also wrote to Mr Johnson and opposition party leaders at Westminster urging them to intervene to help secure a new package for Tier 3 restrictions, warning that “this is not just a Greater Manchester issue”.

In his letter – backed by the Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram – the mayor of Greater Manchester demanded a “full and fair furlough scheme” for all workers affected by the closure of businesses, covering 80 per cent of wages, or at least the national minimum wage, alongside financial support for the self-employed.

He said: “We recognise the uncertainty that this is causing and write to ask for your help in breaking the impasse and finding a fair solution.

“This could be done by Parliament calling an urgent debate and vote this week to establish a cross-party consensus on what constitutes a fair financial framework for people in areas under Tier 3 restrictions”.

However, the chancellor Rishi Sunak has resisted demands to return to the furlough scheme introduced at the beginning of the pandemic and while Labour can highlight the issue via urgent questions in the Commons, it is ultimately up to the government whether to bring a binding vote on new financial measures.

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