The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, has appealed to political leaders in Westminster to help “break the impasse” over new coronavirus rules by holding a Commons vote this week.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and other party leaders, Burnham urged them to draw up a financial package for residents and businesses in areas with the strictest tier 3 restrictions.
Burnham was due to speak with Sir Edward Lister, the prime minister’s chief strategic adviser, on Sunday but there remains little sign that the government is willing to concede ground on some of the key demands of northern leaders, including Conservative MPs representing Greater Manchester constituencies.
Burnham said it was likely that “most places” would be in tier 3 restrictions before a vaccine was found, and the current Treasury offer was insufficient to prevent businesses from collapsing and people experiencing severe hardship.
He said: “Establishing clear national entitlements of the kind we had during the first lockdown will create a sense of fairness, which in turn would help build public support for, and compliance with, any new restrictions. We believe that sense of fairness will only be achieved by providing similar terms to the financial package afforded to the whole country back in March.”
Earlier, Michael Gove escalated the government’s war of words with Burnham by accusing him of risking lives by opting for “press conferences and posturing” rather than agreeing to new coronavirus rules.
In comments likely to further inflame tensions between ministers and local leaders and MPs, Gove dismissed concerns about the level of economic support offered for Greater Manchester to be moved into the top level of restrictions.
Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, rejected Labour’s call for a “circuit breaker” temporary national lockdown to reduce Covid infection rates, saying the latest wave of the virus was being spread unevenly around the country.
While he did not mention Burnham by name, Gove was explicit in blaming “the political leadership in Greater Manchester” for an impasse over whether the region should enter tier 3, saying people would die as a result of the delays.
“I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they’ve indulged in, and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS,” Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.
“An absence of action will mean more people get infected. That will place more pressure on the NHS. And the more people, sadly, in intensive care beds in the north-west and in Manchester who are suffering from coronavirus, the fewer intensive care beds are there for people with other serious conditions.”
He added: “Instead of press conferences and posturing, what we need is action to save people’s lives.”
Burnham hit back at Gove’s accusations, saying Greater Manchester was the first English region to accept local restrictions, nearly three months ago, and he urged the government to “step back from the war of words” and negotiate a nationwide package of financial help for lockdown areas.
He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show: “It’s a very challenging situation. This is all about the health of the people in Greater Manchester. We were the first in the country – myself and the 10 leaders of local authorities here – to accept local restrictions. To those who say we’re playing politics, I would point them to that, which proves that we’re not doing that.”
He added: “A punishing lockdown without support, trapping places in tier 3 all winter, I think will cause real harm to health in the broadest possible sense.”
Burnham accused Johnson of exaggerating the severity of the coronavirus situation in Greater Manchester, saying the number of patients in local intensive care units was just over a quarter of the April peak, and infection figures in Manchester itself had fallen in the past few days.
Attempts to portray the issue in party political terms were also disputed by one of Gove’s most senior backbench colleagues. Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said opinion in Manchester was “pretty united” against a move to tier 3.
“Certainly the members of parliament of both parties, the council leaders of both parties and the mayor of Greater Manchester have been resisting a move to tier 3, on the basis that we simply haven’t been given the evidence that it would be effective,” Brady told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme.
He said: “We can see no reason for taking that significant economic hit, especially if it isn’t met with full compensation for the economic hit when there is no evidence being advanced as to why it would work.”
Overnight, a group of 20 Tories representing constituencies in areas including Norfolk, Kent and Wiltshire released a joint letter asking Greater Manchester’s leaders to agree to the new restrictions rather than see their areas included in a national lockdown.
It brought an annoyed response from some colleagues. Christian Wakeford, the Conservative MP for Bury South, tweeted: “Since Thursday we’ve been united in opposing tier 3 in its current form and delivering the best solution for all residents, families and businesses across GM. Interventions from fellow members who don’t understand the situation are neither wanted nor helpful.”
Ministers must now decide whether to impose restrictions on Greater Manchester. Gove declined to say whether this would happen, saying he would rather reach a deal over a move into tier 3, as has happened with local leaders in Liverpool and Lancashire.
He said: “One of the reasons why we’ve been talking to local government, is that we believe a partnership approach is best. We could have imposed measures before now, but we want to reach an agreement.”
But, appearing subsequently on the Marr show, Gove conceded that at some point if there was no agreement then the restrictions would be imposed from Westminster. “Yes, we’re going to have to look at the position,” he said.