Northern fury as UK readies 3-tiered virus curbs

The new support falls woefully short for those on minimum wage like bar staff and kitchen workers, and self-employed people

LONDON • Mayors representing millions across northern England vented their anger on Saturday as the government readied to impose a new three-tier coronavirus lockdown regime which critics charge will leave the poorest workers even worse off.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to outline the new regime today as rates of Covid-19 infection surge particularly in the north, worsening a national death toll of more than 42,000 (at press time) which is already the worst in Europe.

Under stinging criticism after media leaks detailed the government’s plan, Johnson will give a statement to Parliament following a weekend of consultations between his staff and leaders of the regions affected.

Finance Minister Rishi Sunak last Friday said he would pay up to two-thirds of staff monthly wages to firms forced to close over the winter months under the new system’s highest level of lockdown, tier three.

But mayors representing cities including Manchester and Liverpool said the new support fell woefully short for those on minimum wage like bar staff and kitchen workers, and self-employed people such as taxi drivers and security guards.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who runs a region of 2.8 million residents, said a “senior figure” in Johnson’s office told northern leaders that Sunak’s package was “non-negotiable”.

“I am going public with my feeling of anger about being told the effect on people’s lives is non- negotiable,” he told a news conference, alongside mayors from Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, all members of the main Opposition Labour party.

“I just will not accept that. We will not surrender our residents to hardship this Christmas or our businesses to failure,” Burnham said.

Legal Threat

In an open letter, the mayors called for resistance in Parliament this week from Conservative MPs who won a slew of former Labour strongholds in northern England in a general election last December.

“I wouldn’t rule out a legal challenge, if the political challenge fails,” Burnham said, demanding to know why the government was treating the lowest-paid differently to workers currently getting 80% of their wages paid by the government.

The three-tier system is meant to clarify the patchwork of rules for England that has evolved since infection rates started to climb again in September, according to reports.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on BBC radio the new approach would offer “simple national rules” to tighten restrictions where needed, “but then also greater freedom for those local areas to design further measures” in partnership with Whitehall.

Several urban centres in northern England have been hit with a range of curbs on social life, such as a ban on different households mixing, but the south has escaped stricter restrictions for now.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own devolved governments and separate health systems. Pubs across central Scotland have closed for just over two weeks to try to cut close-contact transmission.

‘Not Acceptable’

The highest tier-three level of lockdown for England is expected to go beyond existing restrictions such as a curfew for pubs, and close hospitality venues altogether, similar to measures enacted in recent days elsewhere in Europe.

No social contact would be allowed outside a person’s own household, including outdoors.

Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram said the government informed him that his conurbation of 1.5 million people was set to enter tier-three lockdown from Wednesday.

Like the other mayors, he stressed his support for scientifically backed measures to restrict the pandemic’s spread, but expressed “incredulity and dismay” at the government’s imposition of restrictions by diktat.

“We are actually talking about lives and livelihoods,” Rotheram said.

“We’ve consistently said to government that imposing new restrictions without also providing adequate funding support is simply not acceptable.” — AFP