Andy Burnham calls for Commons vote to 'break impasse' on Covid rules

Greater Manchester mayor holds talks with PM’s adviser but no sign of breakthrough

Political leaders in Westminster have been urged to “break the impasse” over coronavirus lockdowns by holding a Commons vote this week after Michael Gove intensified the government’s standoff with northern leaders.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, implored Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and other leaders to hold a parliamentary vote to decide the level of financial aid for areas under the strictest tier 3 restrictions.

Burnham held a one-to-one call with Sir Ed Lister, the prime minister’s chief strategic adviser, on Sunday afternoon but there was no sign of a breakthrough. The meeting was described as “constructive”, though it is understood there were no significant concessions from the government.

The Treasury is offering Greater Manchester a financial package worth tens of millions of pounds, in line with those agreed by leaders in Lancashire and Merseyside where bars, pubs and other venues have closed under tier 3 restrictions.

The region’s MPs and council leaders – including 10 Conservatives – have expressed serious concerns about the financial support on offer, with local officials calculating a £62m gap between the government proposal and the required level of support for businesses and residents.

More significant is the refusal by ministers to increase the furlough scheme to pay 80% of workers’ wages, as it did in the spring, extend help to self-employed workers and introduce an improved business compensation package.

In a letter to party leaders on Sunday, Burnham said an urgent Commons vote may be the only way out of the deadlock. He wrote: “Establishing clear national entitlements of the kind we had during the first lockdown will create a sense of fairness, which in turn would help build public support for, and compliance with, any new restrictions.

“We believe that sense of fairness will only be achieved by providing similar terms to the financial package afforded to the whole country back in March.”

Earlier Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, escalated the government’s war of words with Burnham by accusing him of risking lives by opting for “press conferences and posturing” rather than agreeing to new coronavirus rules.

While he did not mention the Labour mayor by name, Gove was explicit in blaming “the political leadership in Greater Manchester” for an impasse over whether the region should enter tier 3, saying people would die as a result of the delays.

“I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they’ve indulged in, and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS,” Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show. He added: “Instead of press conferences and posturing, what we need is action to save people’s lives.”

Burnham hit back at Gove’s accusations, saying Greater Manchester was the first English region to accept local restrictions, nearly three months ago, and he urged the government to “step back from the war of words” and negotiate a nationwide package of financial help for lockdown areas.

Attempts to portray the issue in party political terms were also disputed by one of Gove’s most senior backbench colleagues. Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said opinion in Manchester was “pretty united” against a move to tier 3.

“Certainly the members of parliament of both parties, the council leaders of both parties and the mayor of Greater Manchester have been resisting a move to tier 3, on the basis that we simply haven’t been given the evidence that it would be effective,” Brady told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme.

He said: “We can see no reason for taking that significant economic hit, especially if it isn’t met with full compensation for the economic hit when there is no evidence being advanced as to why it would work.”

The rare political unity extends only so far, however. Five of Greater Manchester’s nine Conservative MPs wrote to Burnham on Sunday to say they were “deeply concerned” by his support for a national “circuit breaker” lockdown, which they described as “extreme and poorly thought out”.

The Conservative MP Chris Clarkson wrote: “We will work cross-party to ensure the best possible package is reached, but this will rely on you also putting aside party political considerations to best serve the public interest.”

Earlier, some of those same Conservative MPs condemned their own party colleagues for a joint letter by a group of 20 Tories representing seats in areas including Norfolk, Kent and Wiltshire, asking northern leaders to agree to the new restrictions.


Josh Halliday and Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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