Ministers are facing a backlash from leaders in the north of England over fresh coronavirus lockdowns, which they say risk “severe redundancies” and business closures in the run-up to Christmas.
Their comments come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to outline a new three-tiered system of measures to MPs on Monday with plans expected to include the closure of pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues.
Leaders from Greater Manchester, Tyneside, Sheffield and Liverpool have called for more cash to support areas placed under tougher restrictions, warning ministers they cannot lockdown the North “on the cheap”.
They said an expansion of the UK-wide Job Support Scheme, announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Friday, does not go far enough.
Under the scheme, workers at businesses forced to close because of stricter lockdown measures will have two-thirds of their salaries paid by the government.
But Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said that accepting the chancellor’s financial package would be to “surrender our residents to hardship in the run up to Christmas and our businesses to potential failure or collapse”.
“We are not prepared to do that,” he said, during a joint news conference with Jamie Driscoll, mayor of North Tyne, Dan Jarvis, mayor of the Sheffield City region, Steve Rotherham, mayor of the Liverpool City region and Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council.
“It will level down the north of England and widen the North-South divide.”
England is expected to be carved into three different lockdown tiers next week, with millions of people facing tougher restrictions as the government tries to get a handle on rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions.
Asked by Sky News correspondent Inzamam Rashid if they should just accept what the government is proposing and “put that anger and annoyance to one side” to save lives, Mr Burnham replied: “People’s financial situation does affect their health.
“There are many business owners across Greater Manchester today who are frantic about whether their business will be able to survive this – that is affecting their health as well.”
Earlier this year, the government set its national furlough scheme at 80%. The northern leaders argued they can see no justifiable reason why the local furlough scheme should be set at 67%.
Mr Driscoll said people have accepted they sometimes “have to make sacrifices for the public good”, but added: “Being paid two-thirds of your wages – especially if you’re on minimum wage – is not acceptable.”
“To accept this would be to accept that hospitality workers are somehow second-class citizens and we won’t accept that,” said Mr Burnham.
Mr Rotherham added: “The government can’t do COVID lockdown for Liverpool City region and the North on the cheap.”
The government made a mistake not to include the northern leaders in the three-tier lockdown talks from the outset, said Mr Jarvis.
“Nobody sat in Whitehall could ever understand the situation on the ground in the communities that we represent… so we are part of the solution and we need to be involved at an early point in the government’s decision-making process to ensure that it is shaped in the right way and that can be delivered and implemented by local leaders on the ground,” he said.
In an open letter published alongside the news conference, the leaders called for MPs to vote on the chancellor’s targeted furlough scheme for the hospitality industry in COVID-19 hotspots.
“We would ask that you use whatever routes might be open to you to bring about a vote in the House,” they said.
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer was also critical of the business aid package and said there were gaps in it.
Speaking at a Co-operative Party virtual conference he said: “The government has lost sight of the guiding principle, and the guiding principle should be that restrictions are always accompanied by appropriate economic support.
“If that had been the principle throughout, we wouldn’t be in the mess that we are in at the moment.”
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In response to the mayors’ criticisms, the government insisted it has been working with local leaders and will “keep all financial support under review to support businesses who need it most and protect jobs over the coming weeks and months”.
A government spokesperson called the chancellor’s package of support “unprecedented” and added: “The Job Support Scheme is just one element of this comprehensive package, which includes rental support, mortgage holidays, and £9.3bn of extra funding for the welfare safety net to help those unable to access other forms of support.”
A total of 13,864 new coronavirus cases were reported in the UK on Friday, along with another 87 deaths.
The UK’s coronavirus reproduction (R) number fell slightly to between 1.2 and 1.5 – down from between 1.3 and 1.6 last week, according to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
However, SAGE said it was almost certain that the epidemic continues to grow exponentially across the country, and confident that the transmission is not slowing.