Northern leaders demand more powers and clarity to take on post-lockdown threats

Demands for devolved power and access to clear, local data needed to tackle coronavirus with greater urgency in Yorkshire and the wider North of England are growing as leading politicians spoke out against the Government’s response to the crisis.

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, today joined Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, in calling on ministers to give northern areas key support to respond to Covid-19 post-lockdown.

A Public Health England and University of Cambridge study last week found that R - the reproduction number indicating the disease’s ability to spread - was above one in the North West.

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Health chiefs have previously said that if R is one or higher, the virus will spread exponentially.

Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Following this, the mayors over the Pennines yesterday made five requests of Government.

These were: localised, up-to-date information on the virus’s spread; for councils to have the final say on reopening schools; guaranteed sick people for people isolating at the request of “track and trace” projects; funding for communities should there be a need for “local lockdowns”; and representation for English regions on the Government’s COBRA team.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post afterwards, Coun Blake said localised data was needed if a “track and trace” response was to work properly.

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“The difficulty we’ve got is that at the moment we don’t have the powers vested in us from government.

Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

“Obviously we have our public health powers that we use for environmental health outbreaks, but we feel that this system is only going to work if it is comes right down to the local level where we’ve got the expertise, we’ve been working for decades in public health.

"This is where our expertise lies and we need government to understand that this programme needs to be localised for it to be really effective.

"I feel very strongly about this that it is the local dimension that has been missing in so many of the policy areas that have led to delays, increased risk of infection, whether it’s through the disastrous roll-out of PPE, the testing regime on its own, the shielding programme, all of these things should have been done at a much more local level, much earlier.”

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Coun Blake, of Labour, said that the council has warned Government that the R rate being based on large areas - Yorkshire and the North East are currently lumped together - is not detailed enough.

She said there needed to be “absolute clarity” on testing data, down to local authority level.

Mr Burnham and Mr Rotheram yesterday said: “At present, there is very little information available to local authorities on the Government’s policy of ‘local lockdowns’. But what we do know gives us cause for serious concern and in the view of some our local council leaders it is simply unenforceable.”

Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, a Conservative, said: “A politician attending COBRA who happens to be from ‘the regions’ doesn’t mean ‘the regions’ are represented. The last thing we need is another metropolitan city politician telling us in the North what we should be doing in places like our towns and villages. Having Andy Burnham on a committee might be good for his ego but it doesn’t help us in the North East.

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"It’s also wrong to say that the R is above one and to do so is to misrepresent the facts. As the Health Secretary has said, the advice from SAGE is that the R is below one in all regions - and it is somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9 on a national level."

However, this is based on a two to three-week lag, according to the Press Association, meaning it does not account for the latest easing of the lockdown.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Friday had urged people "not to seize on" the PHE and Cambridge University report citing that the R had risen.

The Government has said it is offering “comprehensive support” to regions.

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A spokeswoman said: “The Government’s priority is to protect the public and save lives. We have been working closely with our local partners, supporting them to take swift action to deal with any new local spikes in infections.

“We are providing £300 million alongside comprehensive support to assist councils in developing their own local outbreak control plans, and have opened the Joint Biosecurity Centre which will work closely with councils and local health structures to mitigate the risk of local outbreaks.

“It is important to note that regional R values have wide uncertainty ranges.

"These estimates are just one of a number that inform the scientists advising Government and do not represent the consensus view, SAGE’s current best estimate of R for the UK is 0.7-0.9, which is updated on a weekly basis.”