Andy Burnham warns of real hardship after bitter standoff over support package
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, outside the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester after negotiations with the government broke down. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, accused the government of playing a “game of poker with people’s lives” after Boris Johnson imposed the toughest Covid restrictions on the region without agreeing a support package for businesses and low-paid workers.
After a chaotic day of negotiations, the 10-day standoff between Downing Street and Greater Manchester’s leaders came to an acrimonious end despite the two sides being just £5m apart, or the equivalent of £1.78 for each resident.
In a televised statement, Burnham warned that local people faced “a winter of real hardship”. He accused ministers of bullying the region into accepting less than their £65m final request for support for businesses and said that walking away from the talks amounted to a “deliberate act of levelling down”.
The prime minister confirmed that tier 3 measures would be imposed on 2.8 million people in the region from midnight on Thursday, closing pubs and a swathe of the hospitality sector. It means one in 10 people in England – nearly 6 million – will be under the strictest measures. These are the first curbs to be imposed unilaterally, however.
It came as the UK coronavirus death toll rose by 241 on Tuesday – the highest daily figure since the first wave of the pandemic – and new cases exceeded 21,000. Last month, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned the UK was on course for 200 deaths a day by mid-November.
The Greater Manchester decision prompted concern from Tory MPs, some of whom are understood to have encouraged Burnham and his colleagues to push for a better deal. Graham Brady, the senior backbencher and MP for Altrincham and Sale West, told the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in the Commons: “I put it to my right honourable friend – the lockdowns themselves cost lives as well as livelihoods. Does he accept that it is better to do these things, if they must be done, by consent?”
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said he would force a Commons vote on Wednesday demanding a “fair one-nation deal” for areas facing tier 3 restrictions.
On a day of fraught talks following a late-night ultimatum from the government on Monday, Burnham sought £90m in support for businesses and staff affected by the tier 3 measures, later lowering the request to £75m and then £65m. Johnson offered £60m.
“The mayor didn’t accept this [£60m] unfortunately,” Johnson said. “And given the public health situation, I must now proceed with moving Greater Manchester to the very high alert level. Not to act would put Manchester’s NHS and the lives of many of Manchester’s residents at risk.”
A No 10 source claimed a figure of £55m had earlier been arrived at after discussions between officials on both sides and accused Burnham of blindsiding the prime minister by demanding £65m during a phone call. “Burnham was the one who walked away,” they claimed.
After the talks collapsed, Johnson repeatedly failed to say during a Downing Street press conference whether the £60m would still be on the table, prompting speculation it had been withdrawn with only a £22m package for local test and trace and compliance remaining.
Hancock later confirmed the £60m fund was available. “Of course, we do not want businesses in Greater Manchester to be disadvantaged, so that offer remains on the table,” he told MPs. “Our door is open to further discussions with local leaders … about this support.”
The prime minister insisted the government had made a “generous and extensive offer to support Manchester’s businesses”, saying it was proportionate to amounts given to Merseyside and Lancashire, two regions already in tier 3.
If the package of business support for Greater Manchester was in line with the two neighbouring regions – which are thought to have received about £20 per resident after going into tier 3 – it would receive around £56m.
Amid chaotic scenes, the shadow foreign secretary and Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, said the impression given had been that only £22m was available. “The government appears to be waging war on the people of Greater Manchester. I grew up under [Margaret] Thatcher but I’ve honestly never seen anything like this,” she said. Others described the situation as “a disgrace” and complained at the “patronising” tone of the health secretary.
The new restrictions will mean household mixing is not allowed either indoors or outdoors; pubs and bars will close unless they are serving meals; and a string of other businesses, from betting shops to soft play centres, will also be shut.
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Burnham encouraged the public to comply with the law in Greater Manchester but warned the government was “grinding communities down” by failing to offer enough support to people whose livelihoods would be hit.
“I don’t believe we can proceed as a country on this basis through the pandemic, by grinding communities down, through punishing financial negotiations. We are asking a lot of the public at this difficult time. And we need to carry them with us, not crush their spirit. We need national unity.”
To cheers in central Manchester, the mayor said he was still willing to do a deal with the government but added: “It cannot be on the terms that the government offered today because on those things I could not meet the commitments I made to people on the lowest incomes, to people who are self-employed, to the freelancers in this city, who need our support, I could not do it on those terms.”
The prime minister said he was “deeply sorry” for the privations the new measures were likely to cause.
In a sign of anger among “red wall” Tory voters at Johnson’s approach, the Manchester Young Conservatives tweeted: “Boris has lied about helping us in the north. It’s time for him to go. He’s not a Conservative. He’s got no back bone or genuine deals. He’s incompetent. He has now lost all the seats we worked so hard in Greater Manchester to win.” The tweet was later deleted.
Before Johnson spoke, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, showed data slides illustrating a slight fall in new coronavirus case numbers among younger people but a notable rise for older groups, particularly in north-west England.
It was the rise in cases among the over-60s “that really worries us most”, Van-Tam said, adding that deaths were set to rise. He said even tougher restrictions might be needed: “We can’t take the brake off on this, and we may have to push on the pedal a little harder to get it back under control.”
However, in a boost to the prime minister’s localised approach to tackling the virus, Van-Tam said he believed a nationwide “circuit breaker” lockdown would be hard to justify while there were such wide variations between the incidence of the disease in different regions.
Amid the financial pressures of the pandemic, the Treasury is due to detail its amended future spending proposals on Wednesday. While one report said this would involve abandoning the entire comprehensive spending plan for the rest of the parliament, it was expected the focus of any announcement would be more on changes to next year’s allocations.