As we reflect on what seems to have been an interminable week in politics, the biggest standout seems to have been Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s defiance against central government, who are seeking to add the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester to the ever growing list of areas in the “last chance saloon” of Tier 3. Burnham has been resisting the move by Number 10 on the basis that he, and many others from all parties, fear that it may be the death knell for Manchester’s vital hospitality sector, as Tier 3 would force many smaller businesses, especially clubs and bars, to close, in many cases for good.
Proponents of the idea note that, in terms of total cases and new cases in the last week, Greater Manchester is one of the worst affected parts of the country. With a total case rate of more than double the average for England, and growing fears about the ability of the NHS to keep up with demand for beds in the area, many fear that COVID-19 may spin out of control and cause skyrocketing deaths in a city region of almost 3 million.
Many on Burnham’s side of the argument, meanwhile, point to the fact that most estimates believe the damage to the region’s economy to be at least 30%, with a report from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority estimating that more than 98% of business had begun “reporting an impact due to COVID-19” back in May. They argue that, without significant government funding, the introduction of even tighter restrictions could mean that the region’s economy collapses further. They also note that, even without new restrictions, the number of new weekly cases has fallen by 11.6% in the region in the week of October 19th, suggesting that the “enhanced measures” that came into force in August may be enough to halt the spread of coronavirus.
This morning it came to light that Downing Street may be prepared to offer several tens of millions of pounds in order to reach a deal, and while the government maintained that it was trying to work constructively with the GMCA and other local authorities, however, through the course of the day it became clear that the government was increasingly running out of patience with Burnham, effectively turning the offer of funding into an ultimatum. It was announced that talks had ended “abruptly”, when the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick appeared to withdraw the offer of much of that funding.
Burnham’s staunch position on the issue is one with which most Mancunian’s would empathise. Manchester and the surrounding towns have been in enhanced
measures since late August, and with decreasing funding and very little sympathy from London, many are inclined to go along with the Mayor’s stand against Number Ten.
Burnham is also in the awkward position of having to balance the party line with the demands of his own local support. With Labour currently advocating a nationwide ‘circuit breaker’, a position upon which they have been accused of taking more u-turns than a bus driver, many of Burnham’s local Conservative allies have begun to ask questions of his real priorities.
While it remains to be seen if Burnham will follow party line, kowtow to the government or press ahead with his one man crusade, one thing can be certain: this week has done wonders for his name recognition.