‘Everyone is fighting’ – how Downing Street lost its grip on a divided nation

When he addressed the nation on 23 March to announce a national lockdown, Boris Johnson knew he had most of the British people with him. “Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together to halt the spread of this disease,” the prime minister said in his TV broadcast. “We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.”

Toby Helm, Political Editor www.theguardian.com 

Six and a half months on, as he prepares to announce the introduction of more restrictions and a new three-tier system across the country – at what ministers say is a “critical” moment – hospitals are filling up and death rates are rising once more.

Unlike March, however, calls for the British people to unite behind a response directed from No 10 no longer command the attention or respect they did then. The many changes in rules and regulations have left people confused and choosing to rely on their own instincts as much as on what politicians tell them.

Trust in the government to handle the pandemic, say local leaders who monitor the crisis daily, has been shot to pieces. “I would say that trust in authority has completely gone,” said one senior official at the heart of the fight against Covid-19 in the north of England on Saturday.

That crisis of confidence in central government is borne out in the latest Opinium poll for the Observer on Sunday. It shows that just 31% approve of the way the government has handled Covid-19. At the end of March the approval rate was above 60%.

National targets on testing have not been met. False expectations have been set. Rules have changed at dizzying speed. “One day people are told one thing, the next another to the point where they have stopped even trying to follow,” said one public health director.

This weekend, when unity is needed, the cabinet is split. Tory MPs are split. The media is split. Public opinion is split. And council and public health leaders in some of the biggest cities of the north and Midlands are in revolt. So what can be done?

On Friday the prime minister’s close adviser Edward Lister and senior civil servants were locked in long, tense virtual meetings with local health chiefs and council leaders, trying to get them to agree to the new three-tier approach.

After two hours of talks, one of those who took part said he and many other leaders in the north of England were so furious at what took place that they were thinking of issuing a statement refusing to comply with government orders.

“They say they are listening to us but they are not. What they seem to want to do is punish the north. The extra financial support announced by the chancellor is welcome but it is two-thirds of people’s wages, not 80% which it was before. This is not enough for people and the businesses which will have to close.” Another official involved in talks with the government over the weekend said: “It is toxic and everyone is fighting.”

The reason for the anger, on display at a press conference of northern mayors on Saturday, is twofold. First the mayors demand to know why the government will only pay two-thirds of the wages of people in businesses in their areas that have to close as a result of the latest decisions by No 10, whereas they paid for 80% under the national lockdown. This, they say, is “grossly unfair” and discriminatory. It will leave many in the hospitality sector earning way below the minimum wage and unable therefore to pay their rent through no fault of their own. Many will therefore face eviction in the run-up to Christmas. Second, they do not see why central government should have the power to shut their pubs and hospitality venues, when local politicians and health leaders could do so themselves if granted so-called “summary closure powers”. In essence they want the power to make those decisions themselves.

For months council leaders and mayors have been asking ministers to allow them to fight the pandemic locally, with their own test and trace systems, rather than having decisions dictated from the centre. Mayors such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester have also called for greater financial help for people on low incomes required to self-isolate, arguing that without it many would not do so as they would feel they could not afford to. Leaders in the regions wanted more central government help – but it had to be help to allow them to manage their own responses, tailored to local needs.

This is not what they were hearing from No 10 this weekend, however. “There are lots of warm words,” said one senior figure. “But they are not listening. They are telling us to agree what they want. There is no consultation. We have different factors in different areas. In some university cities like Newcastle and Nottingham the virus is mainly being spread among students and has yet to spread to older people. In other areas like Merseyside we hear it has spread to older people. We need the ability to respond locally.”

In some cases local leaders believe restrictions do not go far enough. Liverpool’s Labour mayor Joe Anderson saidon Saturday that he expected his city – where there are currently 600 cases per 100,000 people – to be placed in tier three, under the highest set of restrictions. This would mean closing all the city’s pubs from Wednesday, though not its restaurants. Anderson said, however, that government would be wrong to allow Liverpool’s bars and pubs to stay open until Wednesday because the infection was spreading so fast in the city. In Merseyside things are so serious there are suggestions that local hospitals are already resigned to cancelling all elective surgery in the coming days because Covid admissions are rising so fast. Anderson said his other worry was that the public no longer listened to diktats from London. “I’m not convinced people trust the government’s decisions.”

On Monday the prime minister hopes to be able to announce the new three-tier system to parliament and to have it voted on within days. Many of his own MPs are dubious that stricter lockdowns are necessary. To add to the confused picture Labour has said it will abstain in a vote expected early next week on extending the 10pm curfew for pubs across England.

It is not just the north and Midlands where tighter restrictions appear imminent. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, warned people to expect new measures to be announced in the capital this coming week. “My prediction is, there will be additional restrictions being brought in because we’ve got to make sure we don’t have a situation with the NHS being overwhelmed and lives being lost.”

Another local health director told the Observer that to make any of these restrictions stick, faith had to be restored in those announcing the changes: “The only way is to do that is locally with local decisions. It is too late to rebuild trust at national level.”

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