Scotland and Wales are already developing their own exit strategies. Whitehall and No 10 appear to be concentrating on London (as always). The Northern Metro-Mayors are asking for a seat on COBRA, but who speaks for the regions? The unelected Great South West or the equally unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships? Can our MPs come together as (most of them did) with #pleasecomebacklater
“The role of local government is being massively underplayed in Whitehall” (Especially, it would seem, with regard to contact tracing – Owl)
David Collins, Northern Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk
Boris Johnson faces rising pressure to open up Cobra emergency meetings to political leaders from outside London as plans are drawn up to lift the national lockdown.
Senior ministers privately canvassed several of the country’s metro mayors last week about their thoughts on a staged “regional release” of the lockdown, with London the first to benefit from being freed of restrictions. The response was an unequivocal “no” from regional leaders, who are concerned about a “London-first” approach.
Senior politicians believe a lack of input into Cobra from local government has caused blunders in addressing the growing crisis in care-home infections, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for care workers, and a confused NHS volunteer scheme that clashes with existing local schemes.
Two of the most powerful civic leaders outside the capital, Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, and Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, said they would support a seat on Cobra for the regions as government planning moves to the “recovery” phase.
“There should be representation for the English regions on Cobra now,” Burnham said. “I’m not saying that for the benefit of Greater Manchester, or any other particular region, but for everybody’s benefit. I think certain decisions might have been made differently if Cobra had had a regional voice from the very start of this crisis.”
A strong regional voice on the Cobra committee could offer practical “on the ground” experience that some government sources say the current “overly centralised” set-up lacks.
“The role of local government is being massively underplayed in Whitehall,” said Burnham, a health secretary under Gordon Brown who led the response to swine flu in 2009. “We have issues in Greater Manchester that I would like the chance to express in Cobra.”
Burnham gave an example of asking the government for PPE for care home workers in Greater Manchester last week. After asking for 500,000 items, which would have lasted care workers one week in the region, just 48,000 arrived.
“This would be something I would have raised with Cobra,” he said. “And it’s a problem not just specific to us but something that is going on across all the regions in the care sector.”
Street said he had been “comfortable” with not being on Cobra due to the emergency meetings so far being about national guidelines and policy-making around the epidemic. But as the focus begins to shift towards a recovery plan after lockdown, he said: “I would definitely want to make the case for the Midlands.”
Lifting the lockdown “sector by sector” would affect regions differently, making it crucial that they had input, both Street and Burnham said.
For example, relaxing restrictions on the car industry and bringing 20,000 workers back to work would help the West Midlands more than other regions, and Liverpool, which depends heavily on tourism for jobs and income, will be hoping for a boost to the hospitality sector.
“We need to be part of those discussions,” said Street, who used to be managing director of John Lewis. “We understand our regions better than anyone.”
Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (Cobra) is used for committees that co-ordinate the government’s response to a national emergency.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has used Cobra meetings to argue that building workers should not be going to work in the capital.
He claimed the prime minister overruled him during Cobra, arguing that building workers could carry out their jobs in relative safety.