Covid-19: Boris Johnson’s winter of discontent has begun

A tense standoff between top UK leaders has exposed the deep chasm during this pandemic

Published : 22 Oct 2020 07:59 PM | Updated : 23 Oct 2020 12:06 AM

Between March and September, the government of the United Kingdom spent £210 billion — close to one trillion dirhams — supporting its economy though the coronavirus pandemic, according to the National Audit Office in London.

That figure covers off the expense of some 190 measures introduced by ministers sitting around the cabinet table under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, spending on things like emergency job support, more funding for the National Health Service, business grants and the like. It’s roughly a quarter of what would be spent in a normal year by the government. The figure is very probably much more than that now, given that it was added up and released on September 8. A week now seems like an eternity in this time of coronavirus.

But perhaps the most expensive hit for the Johnson government now will be the paltry sum of £75 million (Dh357 million) — money that it would not commit to the Greater Manchester region to help with the costs of moving the city and area beyond into Tier 3 — the strictest coronavirus lockdown phase in the new regimen formulated by Whitehall.

For 11 days, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester has led 10 separate borough leaders and Members of Parliament from both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties in refusing to move to Tier 3 unless Johnson supplied the £75 million in extra funding. Acrimonious talks, on-and-off negotiations and a string of catcalling during appearances on British airwaves failed to end the impasse. Frantic telephone talks even continued as a London-imposed 12 noon deadline passed on Tuesday, with Johnson being forced to unilaterally impose the Tier 3 regulations later in the day, taking effect later this week.

The standoff

At one point in the standoff, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police wrote a letter saying that his force wouldn’t enforce the Tier 3 restrictions unless it had the support of Burnham. If you’re thinking that Burnham was being irresponsible or simply grandstanding — Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove angrily accused him on Sunday of playing party politics — then consider that the councils of Lancashire, which moved to Tier 3 last Friday, were given £42 million to cover supplemental costs. If politics does enter it, the Johnson government only said it had given £12 million to Lancashire. That might have been a crude attempt to force Burnham’s hand. If it was, it quickly backfired, with the mayor of Pendle saying the £12 million was actually £42 million — £30 million more than the government officially acknowledged at the time.

Burnham says the London figures on infection rates are wrong, so too its projections on Intensive Care Unit capacity, and a strong of local health officials were quick to take to the airwaves to support the mayor.

Liverpool was the first city to be moved to Tier 3. There, gyms were closed as part of the restrictions. In Lancashire, now too in Tier 3, gyms are permitted to open. It’s just one example of inconsistencies and mixed messages that are driving people in northern England around the bend. Does it mean there are different levels of Tier 3 where different rules apply. It’s bad enough that each of the four nations that together make up the UK have their own local rules, but when the government in London that’s supposed to be responsible for lockdown rules in England makes a big deal of its new three-tier system — and then allows for deviations within neighbouring districts — is it any wonder tempers are frayed?

That £75 million might have ended the crisis days ago. Now it transpires that Burnham was prepared to accept £65 million on Tuesday, with Johnson’s officials offering £60 million instead. During much of his early leadership and certainly in last December’s general election campaign — that seems like a century ago now — Johnson made a great deal of promising to “level up” spending for the north of England. Now, given the standoff and Johnson’s decision to exert his authority and impose Tier 3 anyway, that levelling up talks seems very hollow indeed.

In Northern Ireland, where Covid 19 rates exceed 900 per 100,000 in Derry and Strabane, the province is locked down. Scotland has locked down its central belt and has far stricter rules on masks and mingling in place than south of the border. And in Wales, the nation is locked down from Friday for at least two weeks while visitors from elsewhere in the UK are prohibited from entering. There has been no fear from the leaders in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast of imposing so-called “circuit-breaker” measures. Not so in England, and the chapter only serves to undermine the chaotic nature of Johnson’s leadership and the failure of his government to get and keep a grip of the situation in England.

Carry people along

“We need to carry people with us at this difficult time … not crush them,” Burnham said on Tuesday afternoon.

The money was needed to protect the most vulnerable, those on minimum wage, those not covered by current support schemes implemented by London, those risking homelessness. The reality too is that as a result of the patchwork of lockdowns imposed by London over the past three months since Johnson decided then on localised restrictions, parts of Greater Manchester have been under strict lockdown conditions already. Now with winter approaching, parts of Greater Manchester would potentially face six months or more of not being able to earn a living in minimum wage jobs.

“This has never been about politics,” Burnham said. “If it was, we wouldn’t have a united council. It is about people.” No sooner had he uttered those words than a text went out to MPs saying that the offer was now £22 million — and the 

government would try and deal with each of the 10 boroughs separately. It’s the politics of divide and conquer, it seems, and a bit of penny-pinching too.

Mick O’Reilly is Foreign Correspondent, Gulf News. 

Source: Gulf News