On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a new three-tiered system each with stepped-up restrictions in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus across England. The faint hope is that it will work. The cold reality is it is likely too little too late now, given that three weeks ago the top scientific and health advisers for the government wrote asking for a complete short lockdown.
Throughout this pandemic, since Johnson first contemplated a lockdown for March 23, he said the government would always follow the science. Yes, I suppose it has. But it is three weeks behind the science now. And in April, May, July, September and now, Johnson has repeatedly changed tack, changed message, changed tune, changed the goalposts and even changed the testing criteria when it came to policies for fighting coronavirus.
And instead of a world-class track and trace system that would ensure everyone would know the where, when and how of potential transmissions, there’s systemic failure. Testing for all who needed it? Just 24 per cent of test results are back in 24 hours.
The pandemic restrictions
The First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where health is thankfully a devolved responsibility, are ever so thankful for being able to go their own ways and impose their own pandemic restrictions. The nice thing too is that the economy and fiscal implications of the pandemic are the responsibility of Johnson’s national government — which effectively means that the first Ministers, to use a phrase so liked by Brexiteers, can have their cake and eat it too.
But the north of England isn’t so lucky.
A lot has been written these past months, since Johnson’s December election victory, about the so-called ‘red wall’ — areas that were traditional Labour seats but were swept aside by BoJo’s gung-ho “Get Brexit Done” mantra. They elected Conservative MPs by the dozens.
If you’re not familiar with the geography of England itself, Northerners used to say it began at the Watford Gap. Nowadays that’s a little too simplistic High speed train services and London sprawl as well as growth in the satellite cities have made that Watford Gap analogy baseless. I consider it to be roughly north or south of the A50, a main route that roughly runs from the bottom of Cheshire down to Leicester. Birmingham would be in the south, and the High Speed Train project will put it within an hour of London. The second phase of that might one day go to Manchester or Leeds — but that’s to the north.
Yes, in many ways there is a bit of a Game of Thrones analogy here. Winter is coming. Covid too. And there’s a rebellion stirring in the north. Yes, north of the wall, in Scotland, the wildlings are restive. But so too on winter’s fells in Yorkshire, Lancashire and up and down the Pennines. It all makes for a stark warning for those in power in London.
Beyond that A50, pretty much all of the north of England is in either Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions. Is it any wonder there’s a palpable sense of anger growing in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Burnley, Sunderland and in all of the other smaller cities and towns that Johnson and his government are detached from reality down there in London.
The rigours of the latest new regulations mean that 2.4 million people in Liverpool and its suburbs are essentially in open-air lockdown while life in London goes on as normal.
On Monday morning, BBC Radio Lancashire carried council leader after council leader describing how they were not or were only briefly consulted by London on what was happening — and this after weeks of already living under far tighter restrictions. In Yorkshire and across the northeast, it was a similar story.
And to a person — as small business owners across the north of England have said — the financial support from Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and PM in Waiting, simply is inadequate. It’s impossible to live on two-thirds of the minimum hourly wage of £8.70 (Dh41.69).
Johnson’s latest plan was supposed to replace the patchwork of localised restrictions with one that made sense. It might do, but those local and regional government leaders weren’t consulted. For months, they have been asking too for the track-and-trace system to be handled at their level of government. Yes, that will happen, but will take at least four months for that to happen, and who knows where we will all be by that stage. Winter is coming, after all.
Why the high infection rate?
No one knows why infection rates are higher north of the A50. More generations of families living together? Informal childcare arrangements? Poorer socioeconomic profiles? Wetter and cooler weather? A stronger sense of community where people mix more naturally? A different ethnic mix? Maybe all of the above? Infrastructure and services that were run down over a decade by of Conservative governments’ austerity measures? But the fact is people in the north of England are paying a higher price in infection rates and in their pockets because of coronavirus.
Remember that European Research Group, a caucus within the Conservatives who pressed their hardline Brexit views and destroyed the party under Theresa May? Well now there’s a new Northern Research Group, set up last week by some 25 or so Conservative MPs from northern England to ensure Boris Johnson delivers on his promise to help the region. That wall, in the far north? These MPs can see the writing on it. And they hear the voices of complaint and the feeling of anger growing across their constituencies.
Yes, winter is indeed coming. And what goes around, comes around.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.