Coronavirus: National lockdown only certain way to beat disease, government medical expert told Andy Burnham

Mayor accuses government of treating north of England as ‘canary in the mine’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 15 October 2020 16:30
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National lockdown only certain way to beat disease, government medical expert told Andy Burnham

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam has told regional civic leaders that the only certain way to deal with coronavirus would be a national lockdown, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has said.

Mr Burnham said Prof Van Tam made clear in talks last night that the regional restrictions demanded by Boris Johnson would not work unless they included much more widespread closures of businesses than just bars and pubs.

The mayor accused the government of treating the north of England with “contempt” and said the northwest was being used as the “canary in the mine” for an “ill-thought through Downing Street policy which doesn’t make sense in the real world”.

In a damning assessment of Mr Johnson’s insistence on relying on regional restrictions rather than the national “circuit-breaker” lockdown proposed last month by his Sage scientific advisers, Mr Burnham said: "They are willing to try and sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere.”

Mr Johnson this morning backed down from plans to force Greater Manchester and Lancashire to join the Liverpool City Region on the toughest Tier 3 level of restrictions, after meeting resistance from local leaders.

Mr Burnham made clear that he and the leaders of 10 Greater Manchester councils were unwilling to accept any intensification of restrictions which did not come with an adequate package of financial support for businesses and workers.

The mayor said that following discussions with Prof Van Tam on Wednesday, the civic leaders were “unanimous” in rejecting Mr Johnson’s proposals.

He said the deputy chief medical officer said that “to bring the infection rates down any regional lockdown would require widespread closures way beyond pubs to stand any real chance of working, and that would have to be done in tandem with other neighbouring regions, and even then, it would not be certain to work”.

He added: “While this is not necessarily greater Manchester's view, the deputy chief medical officer also told us last night that the only certain thing to work is a national lockdown.”

But he said: "The Government told us this morning it is unwilling to do that because of the damage it will do to the national economy. And yet that is what they want to impose on the northwest. 

 “So that was our conclusion from the Number 10 meeting this morning: they are willing to try and sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere.”

Mr Burnham said the government was not offering the necessary financial backing for the kind of regional lockdown described by Prof Van Tam, which went well beyond the baseline measures covered by Tier 3 of the PM’s plan.

“That is why we have unanimously opposed the government's plans for Tier 3,” he said. “They are flawed and unfair.

“They are asking us to gamble our residents’ jobs, homes and businesses and a large chunk of our economy on a strategy that their own experts tell them might not work. We would never sign up for that.”

Speaking on the steps of Manchester’s central library and flanked by the city’s mayor Sir Richard Leese and deputy metro mayor Beverley Hughes, Mr Burnham said that the city, Lancashire and the Liverpool City Region were being "set up as the canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy as an attempt to prevent the expense of what is truly needed”. 

At a minimum, the government should  be offering furlough support worth 80 per cent of wages for those unable to work because of Tier 3 restrictions, rather than the 67 per cent offered by chancellor Rishi Sunak, he said.

And he said there should also be support for the incomes of the self-employed, along with a “proper compensation scheme” for businesses. 

“So far, they have not been prepared to offer that," said Mr Burnham.

Sir Richard said that Prof Van Tam had effectively told the Manchester leaders that they were being asked “to accept a proposal which the Government’s own advisers say won’t work”. 

“Why would we accept a proposal that their own advisers say won’t work?” he asked.

Sir Richard said the region was still prepared to work co-operatively with government, but added: “We are not going to accept a deal that will damage thousands of people in this city region for no apparent benefit.”

Mr Burnham said: “We have to protect the health of the nation but let’s do it as one nation, and not make the north of England the sacrificial lamb for an ill-thought-through Downing Street policy which doesn’t make sense in the real world.”

He said the government was treating the north of England "with contempt”, adding: “People are fed up of being treated in this way, the north is fed up of being pushed around.

“We aren’t going to be pushed around any more.”

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