The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has accused the government of implementing “unsatisfactory halfway house” measures to tackle Covid-19 this winter which will worsen living conditions and opportunities for some of the country’s most vulnerable communities.
The former Health Secretary claimed the north of England has not recovered after being taken out of national lockdown “too early” because of “economic interests in London”, warning the damage to people’s lives, mental health and jobs has been “huge”.
The UK government was criticised for their approach to locking down the country, with the local government leader saying sufficient financial help was not provided for some of England’s poorest communities, leading those on lower incomes left to choose between working and protecting their family.
Mr Burnham warned ministers have “not got the trade-off right between health and public spending”, saying the “government’s failure to support people on low wages to self-isolate was a major cause of spread in some of our poorest communities”, which is still yet to be properly dealt with.
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A Government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “We do not hesitate to take necessary actions to protect local communities. As set out in our Covid-19 winter plan, decisions on tiers are being made by ministers based on the latest available data and advice from regional and national public health experts.
“Following SAGE advice, we have introduced these strengthened local restrictions to reduce pressure on the NHS and ultimately save lives.
“NHS Test and Trace has carried out over 43 million tests and contacted more than three million people in England to isolate – which is crucial when around about one in three people who have coronavirus have no symptoms.”
Mr Burnham also challenged the Prime Minister and his government to put people first, stating that the pandemic has laid bare the “low paid work, the insecure work and poor quality of housing in the north” which needs urgently tackled.
Mr Burnham added: “Things don’t become a problem only when they happen in London. The issue of damage to the economy is not just a new issue. We have been under restrictions all year and I think the damage to people’s lives, mental health and jobs is huge. It is bigger than people realise and we have definitely levelled-down this year.
“But let’s look at what has come out of this pandemic. The low paid work, the insecure work and poor quality of housing in the north. Levelling up starts with the people. It starts in homes, it starts in communities, it starts with giving them better work, better housing, cheaper public transport.
“If you put a good foundation beneath every citizen in terms of a good home and a good income, I think you save so much in public spending instead of spending it on crisis intervention later down the line.”
The Labour politician has been a high-profile figure during the pandemic, challenging the government’s approach to regional restrictions since their implementation, and claims the balance between the public health and the economy has not been struck.
On Tuesday he raised further concerns about the measures currently in place through the winter, saying he thinks the current local tier system will fail to drive case numbers down.
He said: “It would have been better to put health first, and deal decisively with cases and bring them right down. But instead we had a halfway house approach to national lockdown.
“That was compounded by, in my view, because we were too late in because of conflicts between health and the economy, And then we were too early out for the north of England and I think that was driven by economic interests in London.
“It was lifted too early for the north and we’ve struggled ever since because our cases were higher. And again that was not getting this trade off right between health and the economy.
“We’re still in a position now where we have new Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions which again nowhere near get the balance right. They are, to be kind, unsatisfactory halfway house arrangements that give a complete green light to non-essential retail at this time of year.
“How on earth is that going to get the required change in cases? I don’t believe it is.”
Mr Burnham was speaking at the launch of Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review, held by the Institute of Health Equity on Tuesday, and heavily criticised the government’s “centralised and privatised” approach to the pandemic which wasted “billions of pounds”.
A government Covid-19 planning document published last month it was suggested the total cost of the Test and Trace system could reach £22billion, following the move away from local organising of coronavirus testing.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester hit out at the approach which has been taken, claiming the country has been forced to implement further restrictions to deal with a second wave as a result of the failings of the current Test and Trace system.
Mr Burnham added: “Imagine a situation back in February when the local testing teams weren’t disbanded. In effect, to localise the whole operation and make it a door-to-door, face-to-face, community team operation where people were given a whole package of test, trace and isolate in one go, all overseen by local councils.
“The billions of pounds that have flooded into the national system Could in fact have gone into the structures of local government across the country, and the benefits that would have brought for keeping wealth in our communities. I think if we had done that we would have had a functioning test and trace system by now.
“But this is the Whitehall way. Instead of localising, it centralises and privatises, and that is what has happened this year. In the end, we have wasted billions of pounds on a system that doesn’t work, and we are now managing this virus through the winter via restrictions.”
The Department of Health and Social Care and Cabinet Office were approached for comment.