Northern leaders like me are being left in the cold over Covid decision-making | Coronavirus outbreak

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So much of the advice we have grown used to over the past few months can be traced back to one man: James Niven. A Scot who was Manchester’s medical officer during the Spanish flu pandemic over a century ago, Niven advocated closing down much of society to combat the spread of the virus – against the advice of the government’s health adviser at the time.

Niven’s efforts saved countless lives and could have saved many more had the government of the day paid more attention. There is a lesson there for us today about how central government ignores regional voices at its peril.

Throughout the past few months, I’ve consistently tried to put party politics aside and to work with the government. When it has done the right thing, like introducing the furlough scheme and providing economic assistance during the lockdown in March, I’ve supported it.

There is, after all, no playbook for handling a pandemic such as this. Where possible, I have been prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt as long as it worked collaboratively with us.

Recently, however, myself and other northern leaders have been frustrated at apparent political gameplaying. We’ve been finding out what will happen in our areas by reading newspaper headlines, instead of via formal channels. Rather than briefing local leaders on their plans, ministers have instead been briefing national journalists first.

My number one priority is the health and wellbeing of the people I represent. I’ll always support measures, no matter how politically difficult, which protect them. But that’s not made any easier when the government won’t explain the scientific rationale behind its decisions. Right now, all the numbers in our region are going in the wrong direction, with cases growing exponentially. We want to work alongside the government to curb the spread of the virus, but at the moment it is too often leaving us in the dark.

Over the past decade, councils across the north of England have borne the brunt of austerity, with many struggling to provide services even before this crisis struck. My region has disproportionately high levels of deprivation and people with underlying health conditions. It is no coincidence that people here have caught and died from Covid at above average rates.

A north-south divide is emerging in this latest phase of the pandemic. As it stands, nowhere in England south of Birmingham is under any sort of additional restrictions, while most of the north is under local measures. Once under additional restrictions it will be difficult to find a way back out.

For those of us living in the north, local measures have become akin to the Hotel California where you can check out, but you can never leave. Yet we are given no voice at national level; no way of working with government to forge a sense of national unity and no power to exit.

This is something Andy Burnham and I have repeatedly raised. We have called for a regional voice on Cobra – like London has – and been ignored. We warned that lockdown was being lifted too soon in the north-west – and were ignored. We have won important concessions on the sharing of testing data and support for people who self-isolate and local furlough schemes but it shouldn’t have been so difficult for them to do the right thing.

We know that they are sometimes listening, as they took our “build back better” slogan – not an original slogan I appreciate, but something Andy and I first argued for back in April.

As a former bricklayer, I know a thing or two about building things, but most people understand that you cannot build anything without solid foundations. My big worry is that we risk damaging the foundations of our fragile recovery if the government continues along the path of “Westminster knows best”.

Before this crisis hit, Liverpool city region was one of the fastest growing in the country. The growth of our visitor economy has been a big part of that. The music, sport, architecture, arts and culture that define this part of the UK make us an international destination. Fifty thousand jobs rely on the sector, which is worth £5bn to the local economy every year. If bars and restaurants were forced to close indefinitely without sufficient financial support, the sector could be on its knees by Christmas.

When lockdown first happened in March, it came with a large package of financial support to match. It was the right thing to do then and it is the right thing to do now. After weeks of pressure the chancellor has at least changed his mind on local furlough schemes, but this must be supplemented by proper funding for our local councils and their public health teams. Otherwise we risk being in the same position again in a few months’ time.

It does not have to be like this. If the government is so committed to building back better, it should start by building better relationships with leaders across the north. The only way we are going to beat this virus is by everybody pulling together in the same direction. This needs to be a reset moment for the way that Westminster treats its relationship with the rest of the country. We cannot be an afterthought any longer.

The prime minister owes his position now to people across the north of England who lent him their votes last December on the back of his pledge to “level up”. But, since this crisis began, those voices are no longer being heard. It is time for him to start listening. We can’t level up if our local economies are levelled down by this pandemic.

• Steve Rotheram is mayor of the Liverpool city region

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Northern leaders like me are being left in the cold over Covid decision-making | Coronavirus outbreak

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