Northern mayors accuse government of southern bias in lockdown rules

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham say furlough extension shows government values northern workers less

Northern leaders have accused the government of valuing their region’s workers less than those in the south after extending the 80% furlough for the national lockdown but refusing to do the same for northerners last month.

The mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region, which were among the first parts of the country to be subject to tier 3 restrictions, expressed anger at Westminster’s “differential” treatment of workers in the north of England at a press conference on Sunday.

“This morning millions of people woke up knowing the prime minister of this country believes the north is worth less than the south,” Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool city region mayor, said. “Quite frankly, the government has treated us with contempt again.”

Announcing England’s month-long shutdown on Saturday night, Boris Johnson extended the furlough scheme until December, with the government paying 80% of workers’ wages.

But last month, the government had been “unequivocal” in refusing to stump up more than two-thirds of the pay of hospitality workers across the north whose businesses were forced to close under tier 3 measures, Rotheram told the conference.

The mayor added that “red wall” areas would not be “fooled” into electing the Conservatives again. “I can assure the government that the people of the north won’t easily forget that they were judged to be worth less than their southern counterparts,” he said.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, called for an end to the government’s “differential treatment” of people on low wages and “people in the north versus people in the south”.

Talks between Burnham and the government collapsed 12 days ago over a difference of £5m – less than £2 for each of Greater Manchester’s 2.8 million residents – after the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, refused to pay tier 3 furlough at 80%.

Sunak tweeted the news of his change of heart on Saturday night, prompting Burnham to respond: “But when we asked you to do that for the lowest-paid people in the north, you refused. People here will remember that.”

At the conference, Burnham added that people in the region had “just completed three months of morale-sapping restrictions, and now they are waking up to the prospect of a month of even tougher restrictions”.

“I honestly don’t believe that is understood in Westminster, that already, people have been ground down by the restrictions they have been living under, and they need to understand that before we go any further forward,” he said.

Burnham also called for work to be done on a “substantial localisation” of the test-and-trace system, for self-employed people to be financially supported and for schools to close for two weeks for a “true circuit break”.

The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, rejected the accusations of differential treatment, saying it was fair to offer more now because the national restrictions were more onerous. Gove told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show he had “huge respect” for Rotheram but that “workers, whether they are in the north or in the south are being asked, families are being asked, to do more than was the case even in tier 3 areas”.

He said those offered two-thirds furlough last month could have topped up their wages to 80% or more with universal credit.

Anger and frustration was building across the north of England on Sunday, particularly from pub landlords who had spent time and money rushing to offer “substantial meals” to comply with restrictions, who will now have to shut on Thursday regardless.

There was particular frustration in West Yorkshire, which reluctantly agreed on Thursday to go into tier 3.

Pubs were due to shut in the region on Monday, with some working round the clock to find a way to stay open by serving “substantial meals” and effectively operating as a restaurant. But now they must close on Thursday but can stay open until then, after tier 3 was cancelled for West Yorkshire.

In Bradford, Daniel Horsman, a pub landlord, had spent Saturday making 150 pies he hoped to sell to every customer next week with their pints. He has run the Jacob’s Well since 2018 and complains of having to “completely redesign my business model every few weeks when the government changes its mind”.

There have been seven different rule changes since he was able to reopen in July. “It’s been bloody knackering,” he said, admitting there were times he considered shutting completely. “It has been extremely frustrating and I do feel angry at the way this has all been orchestrated, with late-night, last-minute changes.”

He does not know whether he will be able to stay open during the lockdown by offering takeaway pies, saying it will not make financial sense if doing so would disqualify him for any business grant.

In a statement, West Yorkshire council leaders said: “Following several days of intense discussions with ministers about the introduction of new restrictions in West Yorkshire, we are frustrated and angry about the government’s timing, handling and communications around the plans for a national lockdown.

“Firstly, for our residents and businesses, we must clear up understandable confusion: the region will now NOT be moving into tier 3 (very high) measures on Monday as planned; we will remain in tier 2 (high) restrictions, and then follow the national measures from Thursday 5 November until Wednesday 2 December.

“The residents and businesses of West Yorkshire had only just begun to prepare for tier 3 measures to hit on Monday, and they are now having to change their plans once again.

“We have worked hard over the last few days to advocate for the people and businesses of West Yorkshire. It is imperative that government now honours the financial commitments made to the people and businesses of the region during these discussions in writing again now.”


Helen Pidd North of England editor and Aaron Walawalkar

The GuardianTramp

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