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Northern Neglect: COVID-19 Restrictions and the North-South Divide

Rachel Rees argues against double standards and the Tory government's disproportionately harsh COVID regulations in the North.

With the chaos and double standards of local lockdowns, the government has failed the North.

On the 16th of December, London and the South East entered Tier 3, and then, the newly created Tier 4 soon after. Public figures ranging from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to footballer and sports commentator Gary Lineker lamented the socioeconomic implications of the increased restrictions for London and surrounding areas- but for onlookers in the North, this is nothing new. 

Since the first local lockdown in Leicester in June, the highest restrictions have been consistently concentrated in the North and in the Midlands. Incredibly, now is the first time since July – 5 months ago – that certain northern areas have not been subject to the harshest set of restrictions, compared to the rest of the nation. Throughout, government intervention in the North has been defined by merciless inflexibility and an unwillingness to provide communication, financial support, or resources, accompanied by a heavy dose of double standards.

The government has consistently displayed an overreliance on harsh, restrictive measures for the North, in a clear disparity with its treatment of the South. Most recently, London’s Tier 2 status after emerging from national lockdown on 2 December came under fire: in the week leading up to the end of lockdown, London’s coronavirus infection rates were 174.1/100,000, higher than Middlesbrough (170), Manchester (166), Nottingham (152), Leeds (150), and Newcastle upon Tyne (128) , all of which were placed in Tier 3. Below-average infection rates in large parts of the North East and Greater Manchester throughout early December exacerbated this controversy, with Andy Burnham, Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, tweeting that it was “hard not to conclude” that “when cases rise in the North, the North goes under restrictions”, but “when cases rise in London and the South East, everyone stays under restrictions”.

Inadequate communication further demonstrated government disregard for the North. On the 31st of July, a ban on all indoor socialising affecting almost 5 million people across the North was announced at 21:15, less than 3 hours before the measures came into effect and the night before Eid al-Adha festivities were due to take place. For Health Secretary Matt Hancock, blame fell on those “not abiding to social distancing”, while the Conservative MP Craig Whittaker targeted the Muslim population that now found itself bearing the brunt of the restrictions. Hartlepool and Middlesbrough councils were informed about new October local lockdowns only five minutes before press announcements, and Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, condemned the consistent failure to communicate and consult with local authorities. Later that same month, it was in the middle of a press conference that Andy Burnham found out about Greater Manchester’s £22 million Tier 3 test-and-trace funding, a figure that came to £8 per person, prompting his desperate, blunt response: “It’s brutal, to be honest”.

Manchester’s mistreatment is just one example of the consistent failure to provide adequate financial support or resources for Northern areas affected by restrictions. It was only after London’s entry into Tier 2 in October that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced support for UK businesses affected by restrictions, just days after Manchester’s requested £65 million support package was refused and following months of restrictions for some areas, prompting criticism of Northern neglect from Labour figures including Burnham and Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds. Furthermore, mass testing in schools was offered to London (then in Tier 2) and the South East in early December, but not immediately to Northern Tier 3 regions, many of which had already raised concerns about schools with the government. When Hull saw an infection rate of 770/100,000 and 3 in 10 students off school in mid-November, requests from city officials, headteachers and NHS bosses were met with silence. Similarly, Kate Hollern, Labour MP for Blackburn, tweeted that Lancashire officials had raised concerns about schools “for weeks”, and yet “this level of support was never offered to us” – proof that “the government is treating the North as second class citizens”.

In some Westminster circles, there seems to be a mentality that the North – that far-off land of greyness and poverty – deserves it, with the 2019 Tory advance into former Northern Labour heartlands perceived as a free pass for the government to do whatever they want. In Parliament, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, raised concerns with Michael Gove about the combination of Brexit and coronavirus restrictions, accusing the government of “totally letting down small businesses in the North East and across the country”. Gove’s reply: “The north-east is Tory”; a bold claim for a party that holds 10 North East seats to Labour’s 19, and a response that Onwurah condemned as “arrogant and complacent”.

Such arrogance and complacency define Conservative attitudes to the North. They may have made deep inroads into the North in December 2019, but their government shows nothing but contempt and disregard for their newfound constituents, an attitude that can only alienate Northern voters and MPs, as the newly-formed Northern Research Group of red-wall Tory MPs warned in October. Labour has an opportunity to not only regain seats but also make real changes, as the regionalised trauma of local lockdowns and the popularity of regional figures like Burnham has made the case for more devolved local government. This is a policy Labour can -and should– get behind, with Labour mayors currently holding all the Northern combined authority mayor positions: Greater Manchester (Burnham), North of Tyne (Jamie Driscoll), Sheffield City Region (Dan Jarvis) and Liverpool City Region (Steve Rotheram). As Burnham notes, in Westminster “decisions are too far from the ground”, and instead, “we need that strong voice at the regional level”. This is the way to ensure competent and effective regional policy, without double standards or negligence.

These double standards and negligence are nothing new, but are simply more prominent under COVID-19 policies. Under the Conservative-led austerity of the 2010s, the average Northern council saw local government cuts of 34% compared with 23% for the South, while the five areas with the largest cuts were all in the North: Barnsley (40%), Liverpool (32%), Doncaster (31%), Wakefield (30%), and Blackburn (27%). This is hugely relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic: a report by the Northern Health Science Alliance drew a direct correlation between the region’s vulnerability to COVID-19 and austerity and its exacerbation of Northern economic deprivation, calculating the Northern death rate during the first peak (March to July 2020) as 57.7/100,000 higher than in the rest of the country, and echoing the Guardian’s identification of the North’s “health crisis” in February 2020. In COVID-19 policy and beyond, the government continues to view the North as expendable, both politically and economically, putting lives and communities at stake.

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