The North needs a seat at Cobra to oversee virus response; here’s why – Dan Jarvis

IN the last few weeks swathes of northern England have been hit by renewed local lockdowns.

From Bolton and Bradford to Northumberland and Newcastle, people are subject to stronger restrictions with no end in sight.

For now, South Yorkshire is an island amid this sea, and we are working hard to keep it that way. Many of these communities were already among the hardest hit by Covid: a map of its impact shows a bright band of higher prevalence from Cheshire to Scotland.

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The North as a whole is on the front line of this disease. But we are not at the heart of the response to it. The effort to tackle Covid, like so much in this country, is over-centralised and under-representative.

The Government is accused of marginalising the North over Covid-19, writes Dan Jarvis.

Policy is still made in Whitehall, by a government which has too often failed to be either transparent or effective.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Government’s crisis response committee – Cobra. It has been involved in critical decisions around Covid, including the tightening of restrictions in England last Tuesday.

Cobra includes representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. But it has no voice from the North or indeed any region outside the capital. I’ve repeatedly asked the Government to change this: there has been no response.

I’m asking them again today. We need a seat at the table.

Dan Jarvis is mayor of Sheffield City Region.

We need it as a matter of principle – because the idea of the monolithic centralised state is simply no longer tenable.

Devolution in the UK is unevenly applied and in desperate need of strengthening and reform, but surely we are past the time when it could be ignored in the face of the greatest crisis of our generation. If the Government’s rhetoric on devolution is to mean anything, it needs to be applied now.

But we also need it as a matter of practicality – because the decisions that are being taken affect us all, and they can be better made if they reflect local experience, capacity and concerns.

That applies to the wider Covid response. Local authorities can respond more quickly, with better local knowledge, and can more easily break the Whitehall silos between health, social care and other areas of policy – especially critical in a pandemic which disproportionately affects the poor, and has huge economic consequences.

Boris Johnson has been accused of sidelining the North over Covid - and other key issues.

We’ve seen that local advantage with track and trace, where the Government’s centralised, outsourced, Serco-provided scheme has struggled to contact the 80 per cent of leads that it needs to be effective.

Local tracing programmes have gone door to door, exploited their fine-grained understanding of their communities, and performed a critical role. But it was only last month that the Government shifted resources to the regions.

We’ve seen it with local lockdowns too, which need nimbleness and local knowledge to work. In Greater Manchester, the Government lifted restrictions against the wishes of local leaders, only to re-impose them hours later – badly damaging the credibility that is essential for these measures to work.

That issue of credibility is critical. The Government is asking people to follow rules that have a serious impact on their lives and livelihoods. If the public lose faith in those measures, it
destroys the most effective weapon that we currently have to control the 
pandemic.

Local lockdowns remain in place across swathes of the North.

The Government has already recklessly squandered this critical element of trust. Working with local authorities rather than dictating to them will help maintain that essential legitimacy.

And this decentralised approach works. Germany is a good example, with Covid measures decided by each of its 16 states, and testing handled by around 400 local health offices. The result has been less than a quarter of the Covid deaths seen in the UK.

Of course, there is a balance to strike. We need national co-ordination, and above all national solidarity, so our collective resources can help every part of our country. Germany has matched the leadership of the states with a national response plan.

But with a disease that varies so much from place to place, there are inherent arguments to give local authorities more resources and more control of the Covid response.

As a cross-party commission of former health ministers recently found, the model of devolved, democratically-led local partnerships works for everyday healthcare as well. But of course this issue goes wider still. The UK is more centralised than any comparable country – and more regionally unequal.

We desperately need a deeper, more coherent devolution to unleash the potential of our regions, alongside more resources.

And we need it to help address the disillusionment with our democracy which has helped make country deeply divided, threatening our very Union itself.

With a stronger role for the regions, we could better tackle challenges ranging from our health and educational inequalities to the appalling state of our railways to inadequate investment in flood prevention, problems which threaten our communities and economy but which have long suffered from comparative neglect from London.

The Government has promised levelling up and a Northern Powerhouse. But even with a Yorkshire MP as Chancellor, it has yet to deliver. More importantly, real levelling up would not just allocate resources: it would trust people in the regions with the power to control them.

Covid has exposed much deeper issues with the way we run the country. The Government has a chance to apply those lessons in the handling of the pandemic, but also more widely. Let’s hope they take it.

Dan Jarvis is mayor of Sheffield City Region and Labour MP for Barnsley Central.

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James Mitchinson