Andy Burnham, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, is a shrewd politician. Within a few months of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, Burnham concluded that the hard Left were destined to prove themselves right in their long-standing contention that there is “no Parliamentary road to socialism.” Rather than sit on the Oppositiion benches, if he wanted to exercise power it would require a new role. Given that at the General Election last year, his constituency of Leigh was gained by the Conservatives, it’s unlikely Burnham has any regrets.
Given his political experience, Burnham is familiar with producing forms of words designed to reconcile what are irreconcilable positions. He certainly wishes to disguise, if possible, a split in his stance and that of, Sir Keir Starmer, his Party leader.
Yet when it comes to his stance on the lockdown, Burnham’s efforts to maintain contradictory positions surely leave his credibility in shreds. At present, Greater Manchester is at the “Tier 2” level of restrictions. Burnham argues strongly that it would be wrong to increase it to “Tier 3” the level being applied in Liverpool. He has gone so far as to threaten legal action against the Government over such a proposal. The logic being such an imposition would be unnecessary – or even counterproductive. Yet at the same time, Burnham has indicated his support for a new national lockdown – which would be far more draconian than the situation currently being applied in Liverpool.
One of the criticisms of the Government’s approach to local lockdowns is that the areas they cover are too wide. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, was among the signatories to a letter which argued that as “decision making must balance difficult trade-offs. This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).” There is a strong case to be made for greater targetting. But would a fullscale national lockdown constitute a “more nuanced approach”?
Thus we have this statement from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which sought to combine the messages that the restrictions went too far – as well as going not far enough. It starts off:
“We do not believe we should be put into Tier 3 for two reasons. First, the evidence does not currently support it. The rate of Covid infection in Greater Manchester is much lower, at 357.6 cases per 100,000, compared to Liverpool City Region which is in Tier 3 at 488.0 cases per 100,000. Plus our hospital admission rate is much lower than in LCR as Deputy CMO, Jonathan Van Tam, highlighted in his press conference this week. Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 7-day rolling average Covid patients in beds is at around the 225 mark and in Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust it’s at the 100 mark. Second, the financial package accompanying Tier 3 is nowhere near sufficient to prevent severe hardship, widespread job losses and business failure.”
But it continues:
“If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the Government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that Tier 3 areas will need, then a number of Leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option. This would create the conditions for a re-set of the Test and Trace service into a more locally-controlled operation which, with cases driven down to a lower level, would be more likely to succeed.”
Note the reference to “a number of”. It was a reference the Labour leader missed at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Sir Keir stated:
“I think the Prime Minister is behind the curve again. He probably has not noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he just quoted, including the Mayor and the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, said in a press statement that they support a circuit break above tier 3 restrictions—keep up, Prime Minister.”
Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Leader of Bolton Council has made clear that he was misrepresented by the Labour leader. Why has Sir Keir not apologised?
How long would Burnham be willing to back a “circuit breaker” lasting for? The statement doesn’t set a limit. Sir Keir has proposed that “two or three weeks” restrictions would include all “non essential” offices being closed, as well as pubs and restaurants. What if case numbers don’t fall? Would Burnham favour another two or three weeks? What if they fell a certain amount, but SAGE advised that rather than full liberalisation, certain areas – such as Greater Manchester, perhaps – should be on Tier 3? Would Burnham agree?
As Burnham is willing to support a “circuit break” of undefined length, what if he finds that there is a difficulty for The Treasury in stumping up the “required financial support” he so breezily calls for. The statement refers to “a furlough scheme of at least 80 per cent of wages offered to all businesses forced to close or severely affected.” But the idea that funding for a second national lockdown would be as generous – or more generous – than provided for the first one is fantasy.
There is a serious case to be made for more restrictions. There is a serious case to be made against. Burnham’s tortuous efforts to put forward both cases at once are a dire failure of leadership.