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Despite the headlines, the story of the response to Covid in my borough of Oldham, and elsewhere, is one not of political wrangling, but of cooperation and sacrifice.
A massive collective effort has been under way since the pandemic struck to support our most vulnerable and to make businesses safe for staff and customers. People have come together across the public, private and voluntary sectors to do all they can to save lives. No one has been left behind in this effort – and the level of sacrifice demanded has, at times, felt close to unbearable.
For more than six months now, Oldham has had little relief from the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. Our communities have faced additional restrictions since July, and the limitations in place since August have been stricter than the current tier 2 measures.
Throughout these most difficult of times, our communities have remained resilient. The vast majority of people stick to the guidance and avoid mixing with anyone from outside their own households – even after other areas of the country were able to meet again with friends and family. The residents of Oldham have continued to behave safely and responsibly, even as the restrictions have taken a mental toll.
Our own teams of council staff and volunteers, too, have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to help our most vulnerable citizens. Street teams, made up of staff, councillors, volunteers and representatives from partner organisations, have knocked on almost 20,000 doors across the borough to offer advice and support, as well as carry out on-the-spot Covid tests.
But as we prepare for a bleak winter, with even the most resilient among us tired and disillusioned from months of restrictions which have failed to prevent coronavirus cases rising once again, that spirit of togetherness and cooperation is beginning to fray.
As council leaders we’re told by No 10 that the government will impose more restrictions with or without us – and that, because “there is no money”, local jobs will not be protected. Hearing this is hard to take when you see the amount being spent on consultants and private firms for a track-and-trace system infinitely inferior to that offered by our local public health teams.
It is hard to take as long as people in Oldham are continuing to work hard, follow the restrictions, and tolerate being apart from loved ones for more than half a year, while facing the spectre of redundancies ahead. When the whole country was in lockdown, 80% of wages were paid. So what’s changed? When you’re on low pay, being told to get by on two-thirds of that means having to make very difficult choices – particularly when Oldham is one of the most socioeconomically deprived boroughs in the country.
It’s hard to take when the government’s own scientific advisers say there is no guarantee that tier 3 lockdown will work. Evidence shows that the best way to get infection rates down and buy the government more time to sort out the track and trace system is a “circuit breaker” – a proper transmission-breaking lockdown – that does not pretend the virus observes local authority boundaries. This circuit breaker would need to come with a package of support and enforcement to ensure, and to help, people observe the rules.
Instead it feels like the government policymakers are crossing their fingers, and hoping that these measures will work in places such as Oldham, so that the lives of people in Conservative strongholds can remain unaffected. If it sets the north back 30 years, then so be it. But people here have long memories, and this attitude feels very familiar.
So much damage has been done already. People have lost loved ones. Businesses and jobs have disappeared. The winter ahead is going to be hard. But we can take steps now to at least minimise further hurt.
It starts by following the science, and by not treating people who live in certain parts of the country as if they are second-class citizens. And then it’s a question of being pragmatic, rather than doubling down on past mistakes.
People in Oldham still want to work together. The majority of us are following Whitehall guidance to the letter. But if central government were to put in restrictions that worked better and were fairer, then compliance would be higher.
Now, we need hope. Remaining in lockdown since March has taken its toll. Despite the huge challenges we face, we need to keep pushing for a better future for our borough. A future in which we still invest in culture, green initiatives and well-paid, engaging jobs.
The government needs to invest on a national scale, just as we’re investing here in Oldham. Our council this week purchased the shopping centre in the heart of Oldham – as the centrepiece of a plan to build back better: rationalising our retail core, protecting our much-loved market and creating space for necessary new homes and a fantastic new park. We know we need to give people hope through these difficult times.
If we put in the resources we need now – to get the virus under control and protect the future of places like Oldham – we will finder it easier to get back to that place of cooperation. We all supported the prime minister’s “levelling up” mantra, but the government seems to be slipping back into old habits. Now is the time for the government to show that “levelling up” still counts.
• Sean Fielding is the Labour leader of Oldham council
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Oldham’s problems dealing with Covid are being made harder by Whitehall diktat | Sean Fielding | Opinion