As Boris Johnson begins to loosen the lockdown in England, he is facing criticism for taking a ‘London-centric’ approach to containing the pandemic. The rejection of the government’s stance is reflected not only in the divergent policies of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but is evident within England.
This criticism is unwelcome to a government that committed itself to ‘levelling up’ the UK’s huge regional inequalities, particularly between the North and South of England.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, accused the prime minister of putting national unity at risk and warned that his policy was in danger of causing a second spike of the virus. Burnham urged that measures to loosen lockdown should be taken in consultation with England’s regions given that infection rates in London have fallen to their lowest point while the R number – the rate of reproduction of the virus – remains high in the North-West and is the highest in the country in the North-East.
The lockdown’s transformation of working practices and job security has highlighted inequalities between North and South: a report by the Centre for Cities think tank revealed that self-employment work in the North is more likely to be ‘precarious’ as it is low-skilled and lower paid without other income sources. In London and the South-East, the share of workers able to work from home is higher, given the concentration of certain sectors such as the ‘knowledge economy’. In April, 61 per cent of employed Londoners worked from home, compared with just over 40 per cent in the North-West.
As a result, the lockdown is expected to hit the economies of the North harder and inhibit their ability to bounce back, particularly after the disruption to their manufacturing and tourism sectors. This is not to discount pockets of the South-West, Midlands, coastal towns and elsewhere that will be further disadvantaged as well.
Northern leaders must also contend with the financial hardship resulting from years of austerity, and pre-existing health inequalities. Official figures show that deaths from COVID-19 are twice as high in deprived areas compared with affluent areas. And far from levelling the playing field, the government has now removed the weightings that benefited local councils in deprived areas, resulting, for example, in cuts of 39 per cent for Knowsley, in Merseyside.
England’s regions have been left out of discussions on the loosening of restrictions applying to work, schools and social contact. The prime minister’s announcement on May 10 that people could ‘actively begin’ returning to work that week came as a shock to leaders in the North, who had only a few days to prepare.
In the North-East, local councils and mayors have displayed increased assertiveness in response to ‘London-centric’ advice, criticizing the move to reopen schools on June 1 as ‘reckless’ and premature. With an R number double that of London combined with higher levels of deprivation, it could be a recipe for disaster in this region. Instead, Burnham has suggested that publishing regional R numbers could act as a guide for a safe and gradual reopening of schools.
The health secretary and prime minister have now spoken of ‘local lockdowns’ in case the new NHS Test and Trace system detects regional spikes. For this to be effective it is not enough just to follow the data; the government must ensure regional representation in its decision-making.
Overall, the government pressed ahead with loosening the lockdown irrespective of regional differences, at a time when national unity is vital. This undermines Johnson’s election promise to level up regional inequalities, which attracted many voters in the traditional Labour strongholds of the North.
A regional approach which is representative, inclusive and responds to the individual needs of England’s regions is necessary if the government is to regain its authority, prevent a second spike, promote economic recovery and, in the long run, level up regional inequalities.