Ministers accused of being London-centric with Covid support

Helen Pidd North of England editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters</span>
Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

The government has been accused of London-centric decision-making after the chancellor announced billions of pounds of extra help for businesses suffering under Covid restrictions.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said many of Rishi Sunak’s latest initiatives are exactly what he asked the government for when talks broke down earlier this week.

He also asked why help was only offered when restrictions in London were tightened last Saturday, rather than when his region went into an even tighter lockdown on 31 July, which stopped people meeting in their own gardens as well as anywhere indoors.

After hearing that Sunak announced that cash grants of up to £2,100 would be made available to companies hit by tier 2 restrictions, back-dated, Burnham tweeted: “Why on earth was this not put on the table on Tuesday to reach an agreement with us? I said directly to the PM that a deal was there to be done if it took into account the effects on GM [Greater Manchester] businesses of three months in tier 2.”

Although Greater Manchester is due to go into the strictest tier 3 restrictions at one minute past midnight on Friday, a deal has still not been reached with Burnham and the region’s nine Labour leaders.

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Talks collapsed on Tuesday after the government made a final offer of £60m for business support – £5m less than Burnham was willing to accept. Bolton, the only Conservative-led council in the region, broke ranks on Wednesday to start negotiating its own package of support for hospitality workers.

Burnham also accused the government of only acting when London entered tier 2 last Saturday, prompting complaints from businesses in the capital suffering after the ban on household mixing indoors.

“I’m really struggling with this announcement today. Not because I begrudge people working in pubs or restaurants in London the help  – of course I don’t. But why has it taken London to go into tier 2 for tier 2 support to become a national issue?… Why do we see London’s issues much more than we see Liverpool’s issues or Greater Manchester’s issues?” he asked the business select committee on Thursday.

“Bolton had their pubs closed for three weeks and got nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Annaliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, suggested Sunak only cared when London and the Conservative-run West Midlands were subject to restrictions, saying: “The chancellor has only caught up and listened to the anxiety of workers and businesses when it looks like these restrictions will be affecting London and the West Midlands.”

Sean Fielding, the Labour leader of Oldham council, said: “It stinks. Proves that when people like me say that the government wouldn’t leave London high and dry we’re not just being chippy northerners, it’s true. Our businesses have struggled under the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions, or more, for three months and received nothing.”

Related: UK coronavirus job losses: the latest data on redundancies and furloughs

Despite the lack of a deal with Greater Manchester with hours to go until pubs will be forced to shut, Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, told Sky News on Thursday that there had been a “good resolution” to talks with the region.

“I think we got a result in Greater Manchester in the end, didn’t we? We finally got there in the end,” he told the presenter Kay Burley, who suggested that, on the contrary, the government had imposed tier 3 against the wishes of all local leaders and MPs.

Malthouse replied: “Negotiations often involve a bit of temper and tension and slamming of doors, walking out and all that kind of stuff. It’s in the nature of a negotiation that these things become tense, particularly towards the end when you are facing a deadline, naturally, it’s a human situation. The point is: do we get to the end with a good resolution, and in Manchester we did and let’s hope we do on the EU as well.”

After Sunak’s latest statement, the prime minister warned that northern England faced tough months ahead.

Boris Johnson told the Great Northern Conference: “I have to be honest with you, this winter is not going to be easy but I am certain that the people of northern England will confront this crisis with the fortitude and selflessness we have seen throughout.”