Manchester lockdown: Fury as Boris Johnson provides just £22m support as city faces ‘punishing’ winter

City’s leaders say £75m in business support needed to prevent poverty

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 22 October 2020 15:31
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Andy Burnham shown government’s £22 million offer on live TV

Boris Johnson has sparked fury in Greater Manchester by announcing support worth just £22m – £8 for each of the city’s 2.8 million residents – as he imposed the most stringent coronavirus restrictions unilaterally after talks with local leaders broke down.

Pubs, bars, bingo halls, betting shops, casinos and soft-play areas in the city have been ordered to close from a minute past midnight on Friday, but financial support for businesses has not been agreed.

An offer of an additional £60m made to local leaders earlier in the day – already well below the £75m they said was needed – was not confirmed by the prime minister, who said only that “other discussions undoubtedly will continue” on business support.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, accused the PM of “playing poker with people’s lives”, while Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who represents a constituency in the city, said Mr Johnson was personally responsible for driving residents into “destitution and poverty”. 

Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, accused the prime minister of acting out of “utter spite”.

Health secretary Matt Hancock later told MPs that the £60m offer remained on the table, but made clear that the local leaders would have to come and ask for it, saying that the government’s door remained open for discussions.

He was accused of an attempt to “divide and rule” after he blamed Mr Burnham for walking away from talks and said the government was ready to consider a “borough by borough” approach if a deal could not be reached for the area as a whole.

The row unfolded as the government announced a further 21,331 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK on Tuesday, with 241 deaths recorded – the highest daily tally since 5 June.

In remarkable scenes, Mr Burnham learnt of the £22.4m package via a message on a mobile phone he was shown during a press conference.

“This is no way to run a country in a national crisis,” he said. “It’s not right, they should not be doing this.”

Voicing astonishment that ministers were not standing by the offer made earlier in the day, he asked: “Is this a game of poker? Are they playing poker with places and people’s lives through a pandemic? Is that what this is about?

“Are they piling pressure on people to accept the lowest figure they can get away with? Is that how they are running this country?”

In an hour-long press conference at 10 Downing Street, Mr Johnson said that there would be “comprehensive” support for Manchester, but dodged several opportunities to commit himself to a figure.

Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who was briefed on the package along with other local MPs shortly before the PM’s announcement, said: “In 10 years in parliament I’ve never seen anything like this … This is bad faith, it’s immoral – just disgraceful.

“We were told £22m is for test and trace, not a single extra penny promised to help businesses and minimum wage workers. The government appears to be waging war on the people of Greater Manchester. I grew up under Thatcher but I’ve honestly never seen anything like this.”

The Confederation of British Industry said that additional support must be made to regional authorities to ensure that any compulsory business closures are “joined in lockstep by financial measures which protect livelihoods during what is certain to be a difficult winter”.

The £22m figure is related to an £8-per-head payment to support councils with additional contact-tracing, compliance and enforcement work, in line with earlier offers to Merseyside and Lancashire when they went into the toughest tier 3 “very high” coronavirus alert level.

Downing Street officials said civic leaders would have to “work with us” to secure the £60m business support, which they said would bring the total package in line on a per capita basis with the £44m offered to Merseyside and £42m for Lancashire, both of which have around 1.5 million inhabitants.

Under tier 3 restrictions, gatherings involving different households or support bubbles are banned in any indoor space, private gardens or outdoor hospitality venues such as beer gardens or terrace cafes, though meetings of up to six people in parks are allowed. Schools and universities remain open.

Residents are urged not to travel in and out of the region.

As in Merseyside and Lancashire, pubs will be allowed to remain open if they are effectively operating as restaurants. But unlike the Liverpool city region, gyms in Greater Manchester will remain open.

The new restrictions will be reviewed after 28 days.

Mr Burnham said that the £75m package sought by Manchester represented “what is needed to keep people out of poverty”, and accused ministers of walking away from talks even after local leaders had cut it back to a “bare minimum” £65m.

“I don’t believe we can proceed as a country on this basis through the pandemic, grinding communities down through punishing financial negotiations,” he said.

“We are asking a lot of the public at this difficult time and we need to carry them with us, not crush their spirit.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the collapse of the talks as “a sign of government failure” and accused Conservatives of treating communities in the midlands and north with “contempt”. 

There were signs that Mr Johnson had failed to persuade even his own party’s MPs in the area.

Sir Graham Brady, Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, told The Independent: “My biggest concern is that Greater Manchester is being put into tier 3 restrictions at a time when even the government’s own scientific advisers have said that the evidence for their efficacy is weak.

“People will lose jobs and businesses will close that will never reopen. It’s essential in these circumstances that they should be given proper financial support, but it’s particularly tragic that it’s being done without the evidence to underpin it.”

William Wragg, the Tory MP for Hazel Grove, said: “The sense of failure is overwhelming... Leadership is required from everybody. Trust is placed in us all and that is the privilege of public office.”

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said that “hard measures” were needed in areas where coronavirus has run out of control in the north of England. But he said that a national “firebreak” lockdown was not “consistent with the epidemiological picture” while levels of disease were much lower in the southwest and Kent.

Prof Van-Tam said the overall trend in infections was upwards, adding: “Do I expect the trend in deaths to continue upwards? Yes, unfortunately I do.”

Parallel talks are also underway with local authorities in South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire over the possibility of tightened tier 3 restrictions. West Yorkshire leaders said that ministers had agreed that there was no case for moving the county out of the lower tier 2 this week.

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