The blue wall battle of Matt Hancock’s new neighbourhood lockdowns

For any part of the country currently subject to extra Covid restrictions, or at risk of them, a familiar pattern is starting to play out.

The first few days of each week sees discussions between national and local level about what actions are being taken, what the data shows and what measures councils want. Then local leaders and public health directors hold their breath as ministers meet in Whitehall on a Thursday evening to decide their area’s fate.

This week was more tense than most for Greater Manchester.

The Cabinet Office had been in to visit Oldham and Manchester between Monday and Wednesday, grilling them about targeted testing and other measures they were taking to get numbers down.

Manchester wasn’t being threatened with full lockdown, but nonetheless remained under pressure due to rising rates – while in Oldham, there was genuine fear the economy could be shut.

A social distancing sign outside the Arndale centre in Manchester city centre
(Image: Getty Images)

In the event, that didn’t happen. Tonight there will be many figures in Oldham civic centre and at Greater Manchester level exhaling deeply and pouring a stiff drink at the end of a rollercoaster week. Not only did Oldham escape lockdown, but Wigan was removed from restrictions altogether.

But when that was finally confirmed by the health secretary on Friday morning, he dropped a new bombshell.

In future local authorities would have to – ‘immediately’, in Greater Manchester’s case – get around the table with their MPs and hammer out where exactly which parts of their boroughs they want measures to apply to.

That means potentially adding or removing restrictions neighbourhood by neighbourhood; perhaps ward by ward.

In partnership, councils and MPs will now need to bring forward ‘a combined proposal on the geography which should be included, that has been developed in conjunction with the local cross-party council leadership and MPs’, said the government on Friday lunchtime, with neighbourhoods seeing lower infection levels ‘expected to be exempt’.

Royton, Oldham, which currently has low levels of Covid
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

That will doubtless be popular with people who live in areas they feel have unfairly been placed under restrictions.

But the politics and practicalities it could unleash will be tricky for those currently overseeing the region’s Covid response. It could be easier said than done.

One perplexed official responded: “Next week is going to be mad.

“Are you meant to check your postcode to see if you can have your family round?

“This is going to get quite ridiculous.”

The idea may have first surfaced in Cabinet Office conversations with Oldham council this week, where it was suggested at one stage that any potential lockdown could be done two ways – either borough-wide, or around the most affected wards. It would be up to the local politicians to decide which it ought to be.

Testing in front of Oldham civic centre today
(Image: Joel Goodman)

In the end that became a moot point, since no economic lockdown was introduced. But the prospect then resurfaced on Friday as a national policy. 

Tory MPs here were delighted, after weeks of lobbying for lockdowns to be more localised. 

“The secretary of state has done everything we wanted and I am a little surprised that he went that far,” admits one.

Their own frustrations date back to a conference call held on the night of July 30, the chaotic evening when the health secretary tweeted out new restrictions for Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and parts of Lancashire, at just after 9pm, with just a few hours’ notice to the millions of people affected.

MPs in some of those areas had been sent last minute invites to a Zoom call with NHS Test and Trace chair Baroness Harding and other government figures, although many missed the eleventh-hour email.

Stockport: Tory MPs have wanted some or all of the borough to be released

The call was largely dominated by furious tirades from Tories in seats across the north who did not see why their areas needed to be included and couldn’t believe they had not been consulted.

Many insiders suggest ministers were taken aback by the incandescent reaction on July 30th’s call. Overall, Leigh MP James Grundy – holder of Labour mayor Andy Burnham’s old seat – has been among those to push back hardest on the restrictions, along with Bury North’s James Daly.

So when the health secretary announced today that from next week councils would be expected to agree proposed lockdown boundaries alongside them, potentially to neighbourhood level, there was celebration among Tory backbenchers.

“I’m absolutely delighted that the Secretary of State has acted on calls from Greater Manchester’s Conservative MPs to look at a more tailored approach to local measures for tackling Covid-19,” Heywood and Middleton’s MP Chris Clarkson told the M.E.N. this afternoon.

Heywood and Middleton MP Chris Clarkson

“Despite significant opposition from the mayor, who described such measures as ‘impossible’.”

The remark is a reference to a furious row between Tory MPs here and Andy Burnham over the inclusion of all ten Greater Manchester boroughs in the original restrictions. The MPs had turned their fire on the mayor for supporting the move, which provoked a furious response, since it was the health secretary that had made the original decision. 

James Grundy, holder of the mayor’s old seat, made similar comments to media following this afternoon’s announcement.

On the Labour side – and among some officials – there is therefore deep suspicion that today’s move is primarily political.

Firstly it assuages those Tory backbenchers, while at the same time potentially disrupting the often fragile consensus of a Labour-led region.

Bury North’s MP James Daly is among those to have been frustrated at Greater Manchester’s restrictions
(Image: Nick Snape Photography)

In a conurbation with mostly Labour councils which – thanks to the red wall election – also now has a third Tory MPs, several in very marginal seats, the potential for disagreement is obvious.

“I foresee problems in Bolton, Trafford, Stockport and Bury,” predicts one official.

Another question arises immediately: where does the mayor fit in, if discussions are now more focused on the dynamic between individual local authorities and their MPs, rather then ten local authorities and the mayor?

One Labour politician here spies a ‘divide and rule’ approach from government, while another suspects it is a gambit designed to ‘sideline’ Andy Burnham.

From the perspective of Tory MPs, however, there is a belief that locking down individual communities that could otherwise be socially and economically functioning is simply damaging.

Bolton West’s Chris Green, for example, says that alongside the need to crush the virus, he is ‘increasingly concerned about reducing the fear people have about accessing essential health care, businesses prospering and a full return to school’.

Horwich’s MP Chris Green wanted to see more micro-level Covid measures
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

Another Greater Manchester Conservative notes of the new policy: “Naturally, it will pose questions. But what approach doesn’t pose questions?”

Not every Labour MP would disagree with them. One suggests a need for ‘pragmatism’ where these boundary decisions are concerned.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority warned this afternoon of a ‘patchwork’ approach to lockdown, however, predicting illogical boundaries that would confuse people. If people are already struggling to figure out what rules apply to them, goes the thinking, narrowing it down to local neighbourhood in such an interconnected conurbation is not a good plan.

Andy Burnham also makes clear he doesn’t support the move.

“This policy today did take me by surprise,” he says of the announcement.

“It’s problematic.

Andy Burnham
(Image: PA)

“There’s a couple of things I would say back to the Tory MPs and to the Secretary of State. If we’re going to encourage people to be parochial about it, we will quickly end up in a place where it’s unworkable.

“If we’re just looking at the ward and not what’s going on on the borders of it, it won’t make for good decision making.”

He says the public won’t forgive either local Labour or Conservatives in Westminster if they are seen to be ‘playing politics’ with the response.

Nevertheless there is a power struggle taking place over a picture that is becoming increasingly complicated.

In recent weeks there have been tensions between local and national government in general; between the Tory health secretary and his own MPs; between those same MPs and Andy Burnham; between Andy Burnham and at least some of his colleagues; and between politicians and their constituents, irritable and confused by varying lockdown measures.

If Brexit provided the first battleground for the blue wall, then Covid-19 may have opened up a new front in the fight for control.

|Ma Evening Post