Trusting local government: if not now, when?

“If post-lockdown England is to navigate its way through the next period, Boris Johnson and his senior ministers must shake off their centralising instincts and finally learn to trust local knowledge and experience. There must be no more Leicester-style fiascos.”

The Guardian view on trusting local government: if not now, when?

On 18 June, the day before Britain’s Covid-19 alert level was lowered, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that there had been a spike of infections in Leicester. Mr Hancock said a speedy response was well under way, thanks to what he described as good collaboration with the city’s local authorities.

Not for the first time, this turned out to be a blithe ministerial assertion that was soon disproved by events. Over the weekend, confusion reigned over what to do about Leicester’s surge of cases and who was responsible for doing it. The home secretary, Priti Patel, suggested on national television that a stricter lockdown was imminent in the city; Leicester’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, said such talk was simply speculation. Sir Peter said there had been no discussions with the government on the subject and that the council had no powers to implement a lockdown. In the early hours of Monday, the mayor received a peremptory government email which, he said, looked like it had been “cobbled together very hastily”. It recommended that present restrictions be extended for two weeks beyond 4 July.

Miscommunication was followed by misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension. Far from collaborating effectively with Leicester’s local authorities, the government appears to have failed adequately to either liaise with, inform or empower them.

Efficient local lockdowns could be crucial in preventing a second wave of Covid-19, so this desperate muddle has worrying implications. It is also part of a pattern of disregard and highhandedness in Whitehall’s dealings with the regions. From the beginning of this crisis, the government has ignored, bypassed and undervalued the expertise of councils. Private companies have been deployed to carry out testing, the results of which were often delayed. The contact-tracing experience of local authority public health teams has been underutilised, as Serco was awarded a contract to hire teams of tracers from scratch.

Earlier this month, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, had described the idea of local lockdowns as a “recipe for chaos”. In a joint statement with the mayor of Liverpool, Mr Burnham lamented the lack of information on how shutdowns would be enforced and pleaded for local directors of public health to be given far more real-time data on local infections.

The sense of neglect extends to a financial black hole in town hall finances. Having been promised that the government would do “whatever it takes” to support them through the crisis, it emerged last week that many councils were on the verge of going bankrupt.

As ever during this epidemic, comparisons with Germany, where regions have more power and more responsibility, are instructive. Last week, the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia swiftly reimposed lockdown in two neighbouring communities, after a surge in cases related to a local meat-packing factory. Stricter physical-distancing rules were enforced, schools closed and the hospitality sector shut down. The state’s response came against the backdrop of an agreed national containment threshold of 50 new infections per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Contrast that with this country, as it prepares to reopen pubs, restaurants and hotels on Saturday. At this crucial stage, there should not be a lack of clarity over what happens if things go wrong.

If post-lockdown England is to navigate its way through the next period, Boris Johnson and his senior ministers must shake off their centralising instincts and finally learn to trust local knowledge and experience. There must be no more Leicester-style fiascos.

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