There remains a deep sense of grievance about the treatment of the North throughout this pandemic
Calls for greater support for workers and businesses affected by the proposed move to Tier 3 fell on deaf ears until the prospect of London and South East being affected became real, writes Jim McMahon MP. | PA Images
Government only act when they feel the direct impact to their own lives, and those they can relate to. The contempt the North was treated with during the tiered local lockdowns is evidence of that.
The experience for many of us in the North of England over the last few months has been one of nothing but frustration. While the prospect of a vaccine has given some hope, there remains a deep sense of grievance about the treatment of the North.
Throughout the crisis the inability of government to respond and the lack of a coherent and consistent plan has been laid bare. But the cost is far beyond political embarrassment and has had serious implications for millions of people. Like many MPs I have continually raised issues with government that have gone unanswered, or too often months after the issue was raised.
Months on, I have yet to receive a reply from the Health Secretary to a number of letters and emails. Even when Oldham was under intense scrutiny and we were calling out for help to get ahead of the virus and carry out proactive workplace testing - which for a town with thousands in high risk occupations is vital – we were on our own. It is plainly obvious that these failures, and that of the woeful national contact tracing system has set us back.
If you think it’s difficult being one of our great cities in the North and being ignored, you want to try being a town in the North and being forgotten
There was a time when Oldham stood alone. If you think it’s difficult being one of our great cities in the North and being ignored, you want to try being a town in the North and being forgotten. When Greater Manchester was placed in social lockdown, Oldham was placed in even tougher measures. We were restricted from using public transport for anything other than essential purposes, we were prevented from meeting our friends and our extended family in any setting, including the local park, and the number of mourners at funerals in Oldham was reduced by a further ten people.
These restrictions were in place for over seven weeks, but the infection rate still soared. When Oldham was placed in those measures the infection rate stood at 69 per 100k. By the time Greater Manchester was placed in Tier 2 measures, the infection rate in my town had rocketed to 607 per 100k. It is no wonder we saw a breakdown in trust between government and local leaders.
Calls for greater support for workers and businesses affected by the proposed move to Tier 3 fell on deaf ears until the prospect of the rest of England, or more to the point London and South East, being affected became real.
As much as this has been a spectrum of indifference and incompetence, regions against regions, towns against cities, the truth is clear. The government only act when they feel the direct impact to their own lives, and those they can relate to. For the millions of children who were at risk of going hungry in the October half term, it didn’t matter whether they lived in Salford or Southwark, it came down to those who have power and those who do not. Those with power were not in danger of going hungry, so the government did not act.
And in there is a lesson. When Marcus Rashford spoke up for children on free school meals, he showed not just leadership, but more than that, how to build a movement. In that came power for everyone who joined it. The government tried to display indifference to it, but eventually had little choice to do yet another U-turn.
I’m incredibly proud of the national response, not just to signing a petition, but to direct action to feed our kids. Many in Oldham play their part and I was proud to join them as a volunteer for the week.
I also reflect on the leadership shown throughout this crisis by Keir Starmer, and my colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet. On every call; schools, free school meals, support for businesses and workers, the self-employed, welfare payments, test and trace, and many more, the evidence has been sought, the science followed, and leadership shown.
With this current lockdown the government once again waited until the very last minute to act. Had they listened to the science and to Keir Starmer’s calls weeks ago we would not be confronted with such a long period under these restrictions. It is now absolutely vital that the government uses this time to fix test and trace, but they are showing little sign of taking the necessary steps.
Now the government must tell us what the plan is going forward. But given everything they have displayed so far; the lack of engagement and listening, the contempt the North was treated with, the indifference and the inability to do the right thing at the right time, I am not filled with confidence.
Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.