Why this is a crunch week for Boris Johnson - Lesley Riddoch

As English councils rebel at a partial school restart, there is a case for allowing regional variations, says Lesley Riddoch
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GettyBritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Getty

The British Government’s approval rating is below 50 per cent for the first time during the Covid crisis. So, the week ahead will be pivotal for Boris Johnson and his attempt to lift aspects of lockdown south of the Border.

Keir Starmer, trade unions, off-message scientists and “divergent” First Ministers will all doubtless try to rattle the Prime Minister’s resolve. But the knock-out blow to controversial school re-opening plans in England could come from a different source altogether – local councils who’ve simply had enough.

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Hartlepool and Liverpool City councils say they won’t comply with the 1 June partial school restart while Gateshead, Newcastle and Manchester are still telling residents to “stay at home” in line with Nicola Sturgeon’s position, not to “stay alert”.


But inevitable. At long last, after taking the brunt of austerity cuts, watching the catastrophic privatisation of local services and being completely excluded from Cobra briefings during the lockdown (but still expected to provide new services at the drop of a hat), the oft-overlooked local state is striking back.

In a Sunday paper Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, warns that the revolt against end-to-lockdown plans will grow unless Boris Johnson listens to council leaders outside the south-east. Actually, why doesn’t the embattled Tory leader do just that and subtly drop his “one size fits all” Covid strategy? After all, such a move would truly be “guided by the science”.

Research just published by Public Health England and Cambridge University shows the number of daily infections in London is halving every 3.5 days, which means coronavirus could be “wiped out” there, coincidentally enough, by 1 June.

But the north-east of England and Yorkshire are recording over 4,000 new cases daily, followed by the north-west of England with 2,380 new daily infections.

So, what to do?

If there can only be one England-wide policy, there’s a strong case for Boris Johnson to resume the “lockstep” until test, trace, isolate regimes are ready and social distancing arrangements exist in all workplaces, schools and on public transport. But quite obviously, there’s no way Boris will be doing that. Not when he expects a full Commons sitting on 2 June and a return to “near normal” in July.

So, there clearly is a case for allowing regional variations in the speed of easing lockdown. Look at countries with a lower Covid death rate than Britain and you’ll find just such decentralised systems at work. In Germany every single county has its own restrictions based on how prevalent coronavirus is there. In France, the mayors of individual départements can open and close schools, beaches and other public facilities, depending on whether their region has been coded “red” or “green” by national government. In Italy, each of the country’s 20 regions is setting its own course out of lockdown, with bars and restaurants re-opening in some areas but not others.

Why not introduce the same kind of regional flexibility here? Put simply, because that’s not how things roll in the monolithic UK. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the UK is so centralised that just 1 per cent of GDP is spent by local government on economic strategy. In 2015, Sharon White, at the time Second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, said the UK was “almost the most centralised developed country in the world”.

It is.

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Hence the outcry at devolved nations daring not to follow England’s premature exit from lockdown and the complete failure by Whitehall to engage with local authorities south of the Border – a failure that’s already cost lives.

The British Government announced that test for the new virus was ready on 10 January, but then adopted a centralised approach to its deployment, assigning a single public laboratory to perform tests with no wider plan for using laboratories across the country. Germany, by contrast, adopted a federal testing system using its vast network of labs. As a result, Germany has carried out over 1.73 million coronavirus tests at a rate of 350,000 a week.

Similarly, the British Government’s system for ordering PPE has been chaotic, centralised and slow. It failed to follow up repeated offers of help from local suppliers and has failed to protect all patients and key workers.

Last week, a leaked Whitehall document showed that a centralised default exists not by accident but by design. The Municipal Journal revealed that “central government excluded local partners from key intelligence and failed to share information, hampering the response to coronavirus”.

As the Labour leader of Islington Council, Richard Watts, put it, “These errors come from a government obsessed with centralisation, a civil service that doesn’t have faith in local government and a Whitehall machine that thinks only it knows best.”

He’s right.

And these debacles – only now entering the public domain – help explain the northern mayors’ new spirit of defiance.

Just after Boris Johnson’s TV address last weekend, Gateshead Council’s Martin Gannon was told by his public health director that the local R rate was around 1.1 – above the level where exponential spread takes place. So how in all conscience could this council leader adopt an “unlock” strategy clearly designed for London?

Mr Gannon said: “This unlockdown strategy is premature. The testing capacity isn’t robust enough, neither is the tracking and tracing system and the R rate isn’t low enough. The national advice telling us the lockdown is over is frankly madness in Gateshead.”

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But that’s because any “one size fits all” strategy for a country of 56 million people is madness. The product of a mindless, rampaging centralisation that’s rarely exposed for the dangerous, counterproductive and peculiarly British default it has become.

In Scotland there’s less of an issue about the lack of regional variations. But the same difficulty will kick in if a single, Edinburgh-based, nationwide exit policy is adopted once lockdown eases, as one day it must.

Maybe Nicola Sturgeon can learn from the dilemma facing Boris Johnson, who has staked his reputation on being King of the entire British heap.

Sometimes sharing power is the safest and most democratic strategy in an unpredictable global emergency.



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