Standing up for the North

October 18, 2020

A week is a long time in a pandemic.

Last Friday, (9th Oct), a meeting with Number 10 mysteriously popped into my calendar. Ministers wanted to talk to me and my Local Authority colleagues about the new Tier system. Later that afternoon, as I logged into the video conference, it got cancelled.

Eventually there was a briefing with a civil servant. It would all end in Tiers, we were told.

“But what are the criteria for moving from Tier to another?” I asked. We don’t have that information, was the answer.

“Why have no ministers come on this call?” asked one of my Local Authority leader colleagues. “Erm, none were available.” “Who makes the decisions?” Unknown.

“What are the restrictions?” Pubs will shut. And possibly restaurants. Or possibly not. And gyms, and soft play. But not universities, despite there being two universities in Newcastle with over 1000 cases each.

After an hour we knew for certain that we might or might not be in Tier 2 or Tier 3, which might or might not mean closing some businesses or others, and someone unspecified would make the decision, but on what basis and with what evidence we didn’t know. World beating.

The Government’s publicity machine then announced on national television, radio and in print, that we’d had meaningful engagement.
I spoke to the other Northern Mayors. They’d had the same fiascos.

Why do we get no support while in Tier 2, to prevent us needing to move into Tier 3? Surely, if this is about containing the virus, we should get resources now to keep people safe.

By Monday morning, government had located some cabinet ministers and the PM’s senior advisors. It’s such a pity that it takes media pressure.

Cross party, local leaders are as one on this issue. We will not agree to moving into Tier 3 and destroy livelihoods unless we see evidence that it will keep people safer, or we get the financial support to protect our people. No one gets left behind.
The fact is, you should only close a place if it is spreading the virus. Otherwise you just move the problem elsewhere.

Most businesses are taking their responsibilities seriously and doing a cracking job keeping people safe. And a few aren’t. But, the powers to close non-compliant businesses are weak, and subject to lengthy legal challenge.

This Friday (16th Oct) we finally got a briefing with the Deputy Chief Medical officer, a minister and senior No 10 advisor. The tone was different. It was professional, evidence based. Our Local Public Health experts discussed the data. It was concluded, that the existing restrictions are having some effect. We should remain in Tier 2, unless the evidence changes.

I followed up on getting the powers we need, and trying to get more financial support to prevent moving into Tier 3. When you can get a junior minister 1-to-1, the meetings can be productive.

Where does this leave us?

We’re in Tier 2 for now. We still don’t know the criteria that would cause the PM to move us into Tier 3. If we did, we could communicate it, and build public support.

We want people to keep safe – so please, wear your mask, wash your hands, and keep socially distanced. Please follow the law and the guidelines. You’ll be keeping yourself safe, keeping your relatives safe, and setting good example. And you might protect people’s jobs and livelihoods too.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.10.20