How can the north of England hope to level up under lockdown restrictions? | North of England

A year that began with promises of levelling up the north is ending with fears of it being locked down. Covid-19 has already inflicted many cruelties on our country. One extra poisonous legacy might be to widen the north-south divide. It could render the government’s much-vaunted levelling-up vision as mission impossible.

As offices open and students return to schools, colleges and universities, positive cases are inevitably about to rise. On current government policy, that means large parts of the north will trigger the cases-per-population threshold and face prolonged restrictions or, worse, lockdown. This will shatter already fragile communities and economies.

People ask why the north is being hit so hard. Some, of course, blame the people. Convenient, because it distracts from the primary cause. The reason why this virus has taken hold in the old red wall and new blue wall towns is exactly the same reason why successive governments promised to level them up: an over-concentration of low-wage employment and poor, overcrowded housing.

A powerful illustration of this point is made if you map the areas with the highest case numbers against the Labour government’s housing pathfinder areas of the early 2000s. They are the same places. No government has delivered on those promises and that betrayal has handed Covid-19 its chance to lay them low. Its unwitting accomplice in that crime could be local lockdown policy.

Restrictions on people’s lives should be the last resort when all else has been tried. But the last resort is currently the first response. We aren’t trying everything else.

The north urgently needs a new, proactive and preventive approach to managing this virus so it can escape the damaging effects of blanket restrictions and lockdowns.

The answer lies in what the World Health Organization has advocated all along: a truly local test, trace, isolate operation. We are clear that the most effective way of beating back Covid is with teams on the ground in communities, going door to door, testing and tracing face to face. That is what brought the numbers down in Oldham, not the blanket restrictions. But it is not the system operating in most places. Instead, they have to rely on the national system, which performs worst in the areas where we need it best.

On testing, due to capacity constraints, I have had complaints from residents offered appointments in Wales and Scotland. On tracing, just 43% of the contacts of people testing positive in Bolton, which last week went to the top of the watchlist, are being successfully traced.

Why are tracing rates so low in our poorest communities? Because many people living there are reluctant to volunteer the names of family and friends. They know they have no means to self-isolate. If we go into the autumn and winter with no change, our poorest communities will be dangerously exposed from a health point of view and economically shattered by the time a vaccine and treatment is found.

Something different is urgently needed.

Greater Manchester has now been under local restrictions for five weeks. People are fed up. We can’t expect them to put up with this indefinitely. We are pleased the health secretary has listened to our calls to allow more businesses to open. We now want to build on that and agree with him an exit route from the wider restrictions.

The solution is a plan for the country’s first locally controlled test, trace, isolate system operating across an entire city-region. We are working on a proposal for that, with support from Dr David Nabarro, one of the WHO’s special envoys on Covid-19, and will submit it to the government soon in the hope of striking a new partnership with them.

A year ago this week, at the 2019 Convention of the North, Boris Johnson spoke of being able to feel “the phoenix-like transformation” of the north and promised to “do devolution properly”. A year on, it feels like we are under the yoke of a Whitehall-knows-best local lockdown policy of which the worst is yet to come.

Levelling up can’t be on hold until Covid disappears. The foundations on which the red and blue walls stand may well have crumbled by then. Instead, we need the levelling-up version of test, trace, isolate and we need it now.

• Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester


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