Almost half of England will be under tighter COVID restrictions from Friday night, as local areas will be placed in higher lockdown tiers. But the chaotic and confusing announcement was marked with controversy over the status of Greater Manchester.
London, Essex, York, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire, Barrow-in-Furness, Erewash in Derbyshire and Elmbridge in Surrey will be moved to tier two, the “high” alert level. This will be reviewed fortnightly.
In the week that it was revealed that the government ignored the advice of its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in late September to have a nationwide “circuit-breaker” lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons: “Local action is at the centre of our response. The virus is not spread evenly, and the situation is particularly severe in some parts of the country.”
Thursday began with newspaper headlines claiming that Greater Manchester would follow Liverpool into tier three – the harshest tier – under the new restrictions. As the story broke on Wednesday night, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham tweeted that this had been briefed to the media before local government leaders had agreed. “At no point during tonight’s briefing was this news communicated to us. Media told first once again,” he said.
Updating the House of Commons before lunch time, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was unable to confirm that Manchester would enter tier three, only saying that, “discussions with local leaders are continuing”.
A meeting between health minister Helen Whatley and Manchester MPs on Thursday morning was marred by concerns over measures being briefed to the media before they had been agreed with local government. The health secretary was “really frustrated about the leaks” the meeting was told, according the Manchester Evening News. “Shitshow doesn’t even begin to summarise” the meeting, one Labour MP said.
In the House of Commons, Manchester MPs from both the Labour and Conservative benches vented their frustrations against Hancock, who said that he has launched an inquiry into the leaks.
William Wragg, Conservative MP for Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester fumed that the meeting had been “pointless. I may as well have been talking to a wall, quite frankly, Mr. Speaker. When are we going to be properly consulted, learn about measures through the right channels rather than via the media?”
Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, told the health secretary there was “unanimous fury” from Manchester MPs about the process and economic support being offered.
Labour analysis shows that medium-sized venues in tier 3 will get just £500 per week in government grants, compared to £1,666 per week during the March lockdown.
Things were more straightforward for the government in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan deemed the tier 2 restrictions necessary, warning that, “the virus is spreading rapidly in every corner of our city”.
Residents of areas placed in tier 2 will not be able to mix indoors with members of other households, but can mix outdoors.
In the Commons, Hancock was questioned by shadow health secretary John Ashworth over the amount of money handed to private contractors to run the test and trace system. “Today, new figures show just 62 percent of contacts reached, that’s the equivalent to 81,000 people not reached circulating in society – even though they’ve been exposed to the virus,” he said. “This is another record low.
He continued: “Yesterday, we learned that consultants working on test and trace are being paid over £6,000 a day to run this failing service. In a single week this government is paying these senior consultants more than they pay an experienced nurse in a year.”
Hancock pointed to those contacts that were reached, and said the service was improving.