Boris Johnson on Friday gave his clearest warning yet that he could act against the will of local leaders to impose tighter coronavirus lockdown conditions on Greater Manchester, as a dispute with the area’s Labour mayor dragged into a seventh day.
Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, Mr Johnson urged Andy Burnham to “reconsider and engage constructively” following his angry rejection of central government terms for moving the city region into the tier 3 — or very high alert — level of restrictions.
“Each day that passes before action is taken means more people will go to hospital, more people will end up in intensive care, and tragically more people will die,” the UK prime minister said.
If agreement could not be reached, he would need to intervene “to protect Manchester’s hospitals and to save the lives of Manchester’s residents”, Mr Johnson warned.
While the prime minister said the local tier-based system offered the best route to reduce the rapidly rising infection rate he also stressed he was prepared to introduce “more draconian measures” if necessary.
But an expected meeting later on Friday between the government and Manchester’s political leaders to respond to their concerns was still on hold, the mayor and region’s borough leaders said.
“We firmly believe that protecting health is about more than controlling the virus and requires proper support for people whose lives would be severely affected by a tier 3 lockdown,” said a statement from them. “We do not believe that the current proposals provide adequate support and that is why we await further talks with the government.”
Earlier on Friday Lancashire struck a deal with the government to move to the highest level of coronavirus alert, which bars people from mixing with other households indoors or outdoors and requires pubs to close unless they are serving substantial meals.
Earlier in the week the Liverpool city region agreed to become the first area of England to enter tier 3 when the new system came into force.
But Mr Burnham and the leaders of the city region’s 10 boroughs have said the measures will not reduce cases enough to justify the economic pain they would inflict.
They and other northern leaders want more generous financial support for workers at closed businesses, demanding that they receive 80 per cent of their normal wages from the state, rather than the 66 per cent proposed by chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Mr Burnham, Jamie Driscoll, Labour mayor of North Tyne, and Steve Rotheram, Labour mayor of Liverpool city region, issued a joint statement demanding that workers affected by local lockdowns be paid 80 per cent of their normal wages, as was the case under the original terms of the government’s furlough scheme.
“Paying two-thirds of salaries will not be enough to protect the jobs of thousands — it should at least match the 80 per cent that was available under furlough, with the minimum wage as the minimum support,” they said.
The government says the proposal is unaffordable.
Before agreeing to go into tier 3 on Friday, Lancashire wrung extra concessions from the government in a support package with £42m. The package includes £12m to enforce the measures and take more local responsibility for England’s faltering test and trace system and £30m for business support.
Geoff Driver, Conservative leader of Lancashire county council, hailed it as a “good deal” but Labour council leaders said they were “bullied and blackmailed”. “It is not as good as we wanted,” said Lynne Williams, of Blackpool council.
The Lancashire restrictions affect 1.5m people, including towns such as Blackpool and Blackburn, and doubles the number of people in England living under the tightest rules to 3.1m.
The Lancashire deal is likely to encourage Mr Burnham to hold out for more money.
Leaders in West Yorkshire and Sheffield city region said on Friday they were resisting entering tier 3 but would continue talks with the government. North-east England said the government had agreed it could stay at tier two for now as restrictions were starting to have an impact.
Among the inducements to enter tier 3 offered by Mr Johnson on Friday was the availability of better, faster testing for coronavirus.
“We will make tests available to local directors of public health to help control localised outbreaks — handing more control from London to all parts of our country so that those on the ground can use the tools we give them as they think best,” Mr Johnson said.
Additional reporting by Chris Tighe in Newcastle