Greater Manchester was braced for the imposition of tougher coronavirus restrictions within hours after talks with ministers on introducing the measures by consensus ended in deadlock.
Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, said he had written to local leaders on Monday evening setting a deadline of noon on Tuesday to strike a deal — after which the government would act unilaterally.
“The deteriorating public health situation in Greater Manchester means that we need to take action urgently,” the minister said in a statement. “Unfortunately, despite recognising the gravity of the situation, local leaders have been so far unwilling to take the action required to get this situation under control.”
People close to Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said that they expected to be forced into the very high “tier 3” after the two sides disagreed over how much financial support the city region should receive.
“It didn’t feel like a negotiation. It felt like they wanted to make us look unreasonable so they could go ahead with the restrictions,” one person with knowledge of the situation said.
Mr Burnham and Richard Leese, mayor of the City of Manchester, on Monday evening attacked the government’s handling of the talks, saying that it had taken off the table a previously discussed “hardship fund” that would have topped up furlough payments to people deprived of work by new, tougher restrictions.
“This evening we have written to the prime minister reiterating our willingness to continue to work towards an agreement but reminding him that Greater Manchester has been in tier 2 style restrictions for almost three months, and that this has taken a toll on people and businesses here,” the two men said. “With this in mind, we do not believe it is in any way unreasonable for us to require better protection for our lowest-paid residents.”
Tier 3 restrictions could shut all pubs that cannot operate as restaurants, as well as other businesses such as betting shops, and stop households from mixing indoors or outside. Mr Burnham argues that the financial support on offer for the region is inadequate to justify the economic damage likely to be inflicted on its 2.8m inhabitants if it moves from tier 2 to tier 3.
Mr Burnham told the Financial Times the hardship fund would have ensured those who lost work because of tighter restrictions would receive 80 per cent of their pay from the state, not the 66 per cent that the government had proposed.
But in an afternoon call Mr Jenrick claimed not to know anything about it and said he would have to consult the prime minister, he said.
The deal would require around £15m a month for Greater Manchester, Mr Burnham said.
However, a government spokesperson said: “Extensive conversations have taken place over the last few days, but the mayor of Manchester is incorrect in claiming that officials made this proposal today.”
The government has said it would prefer to introduce the restrictions with the support of the region’s 10 council leaders.
The prime minister’s spokesman earlier warned that, under modelling carried out by the government’s scientific advisory group, Covid-19 patients would be taking up all intensive care capacity in Greater Manchester by November 8.
The infection rate per 100,000 people aged over 60 in Greater Manchester has increased over the past week from 171 to 283.
Mr Burnham and Mr Leese said in their statement that they were “disappointed” the government had sought to raise concern about the state of the NHS in Greater Manchester with “selective statistics”.
The intensive care occupancy rate was not abnormal for the time of year and was “comparable” with the figure for October 2019, they said.
The Liverpool city region was the first to enter high alert status last Wednesday, when the new, three-tier alert system was introduced. Lancashire entered high alert status on Friday, after discussions with the government that produced extra support for the region.
Mr Hancock told the Commons there would be talks this week with local leaders in South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, north-east England and Teesside — all areas currently in tier 2 where infection levels are rising fast.
Labour wants a short, England-wide “circuit-breaker” lockdown, saying it would be more effective because of the risk that people from areas under the toughest restrictions would travel to less restricted areas.
Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, on Monday announced a 16-day circuit-breaker lockdown for the whole of his nation starting at 6pm on Friday. The government has argued that a circuit breaker for all of England would unfairly hit regions where infections are currently relatively low.
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