The Harrying of the North, or The Two Nations

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in the crazy situation of having my home city, my home region, involved in a stand-off with the national government which is supposed to represent us.  Last Tuesday, we were given a high noon deadline to agree to what the government said or have Tier 3 restrictions imposed on us without local leaders’ agreement – the latter being what eventually happened.  One the one hand, it sounded like something from 1914 or 1939 – here is an ultimatum.  Crowds were gathering in town, waiting to see what would happen.  On the other hand, we had Robert Jenrick saying that, if Andy Burnham wouldn’t do what he said, he was going to report him to the Prime Minister, sounding rather more like the school sneak than a member of the Cabinet.  It was so farcical that it would have been funny had it not been so serious.

None of this was political.  MPs and council leaders from both main parties stood side by side on this.  That seemed to be what threw the government – the City United response, and the strength of it.  It wasn’t about point-scoring.  It was about the need for fairness.  I’m sure we all accept that this is an extremely difficult situation, and that it’s one which no-one really knows how to deal with.  It’s no-one’s fault that infection rates are rising.  It’s happening right across Europe and beyond, regardless of the different policies adopted by different authorities.  It’s no use blaming the track and trace system, the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the behaviour of different demographic groups, or anything else – and it’s certainly no use blaming people in densely-populated areas where infection rates are inevitably higher than those in sparsely-populated areas.  It’s just the way pandemics go.  There are always second waves.  This is where we are, and we need to try to deal with it.  We all want to get infection rates down.  But the methods being used are not working for the North of England.

There were two main issues involved in the “stand-off”.  One was the fact that local lockdowns just don’t seem to work.  We should know.  We’ve been under additional restrictions since the end of July.  The first lot were announced, with no warning, on Twitter, at around half 9 on a Thursday night, to come into force at midnight.  Parents due to be at work the next morning were told that they’d now be breaking the law if they left their children with relatives or friends.  We’ve had one set of rules after another – this lot for Bolton, that lot for Oldham, the other lot for Wigan.  None of them have done any good.   And then different rules were introduced for other parts of the North, causing more and more confusion.  The North East had three different sets of rules in ten days!  And leaders there were only informed of one of the changes five minutes before the details were released to the press.

And infection rates have just kept going up anyway.

The other main issue was the financial support, or lack of, on offer.  £60 million for Greater Manchester.  Merseyside, with half the number of people, was offered £45 million.  I’m not a mathematician, but it’s not difficult to see that that doesn’t work.  And we only asked for £65 million.  In terms of public spending, it’s a drop in the ocean.  How many billions are being put into HS2, which not one person in a thousand actually wants?  I’m sure we all appreciate that the state hasn’t got a bottomless purse, and can’t borrow ad infinitum, but how are people in businesses being forced to close supposed to manage indefinitely on two-thirds of their income, which is all they’re going to get?

And that’s just for people in businesses which are having to close.  What about taxi drivers?  What about all the people running B&Bs and guesthouses in Blackpool, who’ve had all their half-term bookings cancelled?  An SOS was beamed on to the side of Blackpool Tower last week.  That’s how bad it is.  What about all the other businesses suffering as people have to tighten their belts?  Not to mention all the nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, lower league football clubs … the list goes on and on.  We know that the government can’t pay for everything.  But it can pay for a lot more than it is doing.

We’ve had three months of being told that we can’t meet our families and friends in any indoor setting, or even in private gardens.  Now, we’re only supposed to meet up in parks.  Or beaches.  Or forests.  Well, obviously there are miles and miles of beaches and forests in Manchester!   It’s horrible for everyone.  But it’s particularly worrying for those whose livelihoods are at stake.  Communities are pulling together, which is something: sandwich delivery businesses and street food traders are partnering with pubs, to enable them to provide food and so be able to remain open.  Pubs are offering beans on toast, chip butties, anything.  A small number of people find that irresponsible, but most people seem to be backing them, knowing that they’re just trying to stay afloat.

And, across the country, people have rallied behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child food poverty.   It’s crazy, isn’t it?  Our 22-year-old striker, young Marcus who’s been at United since he was a schoolboy, seems to be the only person providing any sort of national leadership.  I started keeping a pandemic blog so that I’d have a record for myself that wasn’t in my illegible handwriting.  I never thought that I’d still be keeping it at the end of October, and I certainly never thought that Greater Manchester would become the centre of it all and that one of our players would be the one piling pressure on the government to do more to help those in need.

That’s a national thing, though,  But the Tier 3 restrictions aren’t.  So far, they affect much of the North West, and South Yorkshire, and, shortly, they’ll also affect parts of Nottinghamshire.   It’s possible that West Yorkshire and the North East may follow.  Yes, I know that we’re the areas with the highest infection rates.  But we haven’t bloody well done that on purpose, the areas affected include many communities which are already amongst the most deprived in the country, and we deserve to be treated better than this.  Back in the spring, there really was a “Spirit of the Blitz” feeling, epitomised by that wonderful “We’ll Meet Again” speech given by our beloved Queen.  That’s gone now.  Any sense that we’re all in this together has gone.  And the national government issuing an ultimatum to Greater Manchester, as if it were about to declare war … what is going on here?   We’re supposed to be fighting the virus, not each other.

In the words of the Conservative leader of Bolton council, “What a clusterfuck”.

No-one knows what the answer to this nightmare is.  But making people in the North feel that they’re being treated like second class citizens certainly isn’t it.  Ironically, this has united Manchester and Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, Lancashire and Yorkshire …. that takes some doing.  But it’s united us all in feeling that we’re getting a raw deal.  And it’s not on.  Stop treating the North like this.





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