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Local Liverpool Leaders Say Boris Johnson Has "Sowed Division" In The North As They Deal With Strict Covid Measures

Merseyside and Greater Manchester metro mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham (Credit: PA)

5 min read

Boris Johnson's repeated praising of Merseyside mayor Steve Rotheram after the city region was placed under the strictest lockdown measures nearly a week ago is a "deliberate tactic to sow division in the north", an MP has claimed.

Liverpool Riverside MP Kim Johnson said people on Merseyside were "a bit pissed off, to put it mildly" after the region became the first in the country to be placed in the highest risk category under the government's new three-tier system for slowing the spread of coronavirus.

Since then, ministers have been locked in a battle with other northern leaders - including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham - as they attempt to broaden the area of Tier 3 restrictions, which ban household mixing and force hospitality and leisure services to close.

"Lancashire was declared a Tier 3 area on Friday - but with different restrictions, which doesn't make sense to anybody," Ms Johnson told PoliticsHome. 

"Liverpool city region is the only place in the country where gyms are closed.  If the tier system is a way to reduce the transmission rate, how come it can be imposed in one way in one area and differently in another?

"There is absolutely no sense of the government dealing with the situation.  Everything is knee-jerk all the time and this is just one key example. We just want to see competence. We want to protect people's lives and livelihoods."

While Mr Burnham has resisted the imposition of Tier 3 restrictions, his Merseyside counterpart won praise from the prime minister last week for his "strong leadership and collaboration" after agreeing to the measures for the Liverpool city region in exchange for a package of extra financial support.

"Andy has won a lot of praise for standing his ground, but Steve and Joe [Anderson] also stood their ground," said Labour MP Ms Johnson. 

"I think the fact Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson thanked them for their co-operation was deliberate, to cause divisions, because the government hasn't worked collaboratively at all.

"They summoned Merseyside MPs to a Zoom meeting with three minutes' notice last week. That says it all. We are supposed to have devolved responsibility here with a metro mayor, but it doesn't feel like that at the moment.  It's just diktat from Boris Johnson."

Mr Rotheram has pledged to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Mr Burnham after the latter was accused of "political posturing" by ministers.

Mr Rotheram, a former MP for Liverpool Walton, also accused the PM of using his name “inappropriately”, in what he described as “an attempt to divide and conquer”.

A senior Merseyside council source said: "They are playing divide and conquer with us and Greater Manchester.

But they went on: "That being said, the Greater Manchester approach is incredibly risky - yes, they’ve avoided Tier 3 for now and can claim a win, but if their case numbers continue to rise, and to be blunt, if the bodies pile up in the next few weeks - the government won’t hesitate in putting the blame at Burnham’s door for not locking down sooner."

They added: "There’s a lot of anger with the government for failing to give any extra financial support to businesses or workers, and that’s what the government don’t want people to focus on."

Ms Johnson said while a £51 million package of support for Merseyside from central government would help keep some businesses afloat, "many will just not reopen again, and constituents are going to suffer".

"I'm hoping to hold a Zoom meeting with the small business federation and others in the sector this week to get a better understanding of how this money is going to be distributed," they added.

"But if more money had been allocated to local authorities and to local public health teams in the first place to run test and trace, we'd have had a much better opportunity to get a handle on this. 

"Ultimately, the Tories don't like Liverpool and have attacked it since the 1970s.  And when you look at the former 'red wall' seats that the Tories now hold, you can clearly see the unequal distribution and that we are being punished."

Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South and shadow sports minister, said she fears for the mental and physical health of her constituents.

"People are trying to do the right thing, to get out for walks, get a coffee, to focus on the small things that you can still do," she told PoliticsHome. 

"But it is a worry.  Businesses are trying their absolute best, but they need some extra help.  During early meetings with ministers, we weren't able to get a Treasury official or even a Treasury minister on the call.  We have our first meeting with someone tomorrow."

Ms McGovern said waiting until the last minute to invite Merseyside MPs to a virtual meeting with health minister Matt Hancock was "totally unacceptable".

She added: "Even then, the invite for that meeting came through on email.  Are my staff expected to be on constant red alert for an email from the secretary of state to invite me to a meeting in 10 minutes' time?  My staff are brilliant, but they've also got their actual jobs to do. 

"It's completely infuriating.  And then when you do get into a meeting to speak to Matt Hancock, and you want to know the scientific base for making decisions, you find out that the Joint Biosecurity Committee reports into the Cabinet Office, so it's not even under his umbrella anyway.

"In Wirral, we went for four cases in 100,000 to 104 almost overnight, which was quite shocking and we were anxious to get the response right.  People are tired, people are depressed.  They are trying their best, but it's hard going for everyone."

Announcing the new restrictions last week, Mr Hancock said ministers "had to act" to stop the spread of infection.

 "As with our strategy overall, our goal is to protect education and employment as much as possible, while bearing down on the virus," he told the Commons.

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