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The blistering rage of northern leaders locked out of lockdown decisions

A belated meeting last night between Number 10 and Greater Manchester has been dismissed as a ‘waste of time’, ‘f****** awful’ and ‘patronising b*****s’, as local leaders and officials run out of patience

The way the meeting began really should have been a sign.

When Greater Manchester leaders – finally – sat down to discuss local lockdowns with Number 10 at 5.30pm on Friday evening, the tech immediately went down.

For ten minutes, local government waited while central government switched rooms and struggled to get its IT working.

When Rochdale’s leader Allen Brett suggested ministers were incapable of organising ‘a p*** up in a brewery’, a central government voice responded that actually some of them were still there and could hear him. Probably fortunately for all concerned, he had been muted by then.

The call had been billed as a mini ‘gold’ meeting – a version of the ones held by Boris Johnson each week in Whitehall to decide the lockdown fate of communities across England.

Its necessity had become swiftly apparent after the disbelief and fury that was unleashed by the news on the front page of Thursday’s Times that northern areas were to see pub and restaurant closures. Local leaders had not been told or consulted.

If they had any hope that this meeting would rectify that, it was quickly dispelled.

Once the IT was working, the call saw leaders addressed by housing secretary Robert Jenrick, Public Health England official Thomas Waits, the Prime Minister’s chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister and ‘some bloke from the Treasury’, according to one local official.

The Chief Medical Officer, who some had thought might be there to present the data, was conspicuously absent.

It began with a presentation of Office for National Statistics sides about the prevalence of the virus in the north of England, showing things are worse here than they are in the south, a fact that did not come as revelatory news to leaders.

(Image: PA)

One of those present said there was nothing in the presentation that would not already be tabled at their own weekly emergency Covid committee meetings, which draw together public sector officials from across the Greater Manchester system.

Arguably, in fact, it amounted to less than that, since it was North West level and not local.

“The data was no different from what we’d seen from the latest ONS report and PHE’s own latest sit rep – ie very high level and no narrative or actual analysis and interpretation,” said one of those present.

“There was no attempt to present intelligence at a Greater Manchester or individual ten-borough level. So nothing as detailed or contextualised and interpreted as the emergency committee see weekly.

“Nor were there any slides presented showing the actual evidence and scientific, social and economic impact assessment of any proposed measures. Nor were any proper details on tiers and thresholds given.”

(Image: MEN)

Overall, though, the message was that the government thought pubs were the problem.

That was pushed back on by Manchester’s Sir Richard Leese, who has been forcefully opposed to any further economic measures.

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The city’s own internal analysis of Greater Manchester-wide contact tracing suggests that while bars and restaurants were the most common setting – aside from households – for outbreaks between mid-August and mid-September, that then began to drop steeply and the sector is now behind offices, shops and factories. One theory is that the 10pm curfew may have actually had an impact.

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Meanwhile the impact of students household transmission is stark in Manchester’s data. Some figures fear pub closures will merely drive socialising underground, making enforcement much harder.

But the evidence and analysis from Greater Manchester’s own devolved system did not seem to be of interest, said several present. No real debate was to be had about what it showed, or the impact of different options.

(Image: ABNM Photography)

The first half of the meeting was taken up with the government’s presentation. Andy Burnham, Sir Richard Leese and Bolton’s Conservative leader David Greenhalgh then had enough time to – forcefully – put their thoughts forward before the meeting was swiftly wrapped up.

Coun Greenhalgh apparently also had to point out on a number of occasions that Manchester and Greater Manchester were two different things.

“Total joke. Not a negotiation, not a briefing of anything useful. And when he got kickback, Lister basically went ‘we are out of time’ and…

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