This week has been more tense than most for Greater Manchester.
The Cabinet Office had visited Oldham and Manchester between Monday and Wednesday, asking them about targeted testing and other steps they were taking to reduce the numbers.
Manchester was not threatened with a full foreclosure, but remained under pressure nonetheless due to the rate hike – while in Oldham there was real fear the economy was shut down.
In fact, that did not happen. Tonight there will be plenty of characters in Oldham Civic Center and at the Greater Manchester level who will breathe out deeply and pour a stiff drink at the end of a week of roller coasters. Not only did Oldham escape lockdown, but Wigan was removed from restrictions altogether.
But when this was finally confirmed by the Health Secretary on Friday morning, he threw a new bomb.
Going forward, local authorities should – “immediately” in the case of Greater Manchester – go around the table with their MPs and determine where exactly which parts of their borough they want the measures to apply to.
This potentially means adding or removing restrictions neighborhood by neighborhood; maybe room by room.
In partnership, councils and deputies will now have to present “a combined proposal on the geography to be included, which has been developed in collaboration with the leadership of the multi-party council and deputies,” the government said at noon on Friday, with neighborhoods experiencing lower infection levels “should be exempt”.
This will undoubtedly be popular with people who live in areas that they believe have been unfairly restricted.
But the policy and the practicalities it could trigger will be tricky for those currently overseeing the region’s Covid response. It might be easier said than done.
A puzzled official replied, “Next week is going to be crazy.
“Are you supposed to check your zip code to see if you can show your family around?”
“It’s going to get pretty ridiculous. ”
The idea may have first surfaced in Cabinet Office conversations with Oldham Council this week, where it was suggested at one point that any potential lockdown could be done in two ways – either to the district scale, i.e. around the most affected neighborhoods. It would be up to local politicians to decide what it should be.
In the end, this became a moot point, as no economic foreclosures were introduced. But the prospect then resurfaced on Friday as national policy.
Conservative MPs here were elated, after weeks of lobbying for the lockdowns to be more localized.
“The Secretary of State did everything we wanted and I’m a little surprised he went this far,” admits one.
Their own frustrations trace back to a conference call held on the night of July 30, the chaotic evening where the Health Secretary tweeted new restrictions for Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and parts of Lancashire, just after 9 p.m., with only a few hours. notice to millions of people affected.
MPs from some of those areas had received last-minute invitations to a Zoom call with NHS Test and Trace chairperson Baroness Harding and other government figures, although many missed the email from the eleventh hour.
The call was largely dominated by furious tirades from Tories in seats across the north who did not see why their regions needed to be included and could not believe they had not been consulted.
Many insiders suggest ministers were taken aback by the fiery reaction to the July 30 call. Overall, Leigh MP James Grundy – holder of the former seat of Labor Mayor Andy Burnham – was among those pushing back the restrictions the most, along with James Daly of Bury North.
So when the Health Secretary announced today that starting next week the councils would be expected to agree on proposed lockdown limits alongside them, potentially at the neighborhood level, there was a celebration among Conservative backbenchers.
“I am absolutely delighted that the Secretary of State has responded to calls from Conservative MPs in Greater Manchester to consider a more tailored approach to local measures to fight Covid-19,” the MP for Heywood told MEN this afternoon. and Middleton, Chris Clarkson.
“Despite significant opposition from the mayor, who called these measures ‘impossible’.
The remark refers to a furious row between Tory MPs here and Andy Burnham over including the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester in the original restrictions. MPs had turned fire on the mayor for supporting the movement, which sparked a furious reaction as it was the Health Secretary who made the initial decision.
James Grundy, holder of the former mayor’s seat, made similar comments to the media after this afternoon’s announcement.
On the Labor side – and among some officials – there is therefore a deep suspicion that today’s decision is above all political.
First, it appeases those Tory backbenchers, while potentially disrupting the often fragile consensus of a Labor-led region.
In a metropolitan area with mainly labor councils which – thanks to the election of the Red Wall – now also has a third Conservative MP, many of whom have very marginal seats, the potential for disagreement is obvious.
“I foresee problems at Bolton, Trafford, Stockport and Bury,” predicted an official.
Another question immediately arises: where is the mayor located, if the discussions are now focused more on the dynamic between local authorities and their deputies, rather than on ten local authorities and the mayor?
One Labor politician here spies on a ‘divide and rule’ approach by government, while another suspects it is a ploy designed to ‘sideline’ Andy Burnham.
From the perspective of Conservative MPs, however, there is a belief that locking down individual communities that might otherwise function socially and economically is simply damaging.
Chris Green of Bolton West, for example, says that in addition to the need to squash the virus, he’s increasingly concerned about reducing the fear people have about accessing healthcare. essentials, business prosperity and a full return to school.
Another Greater Manchester Conservative notes the new policy: “Of course, this will ask questions. But which approach does not ask questions? ”
Not all Labor MPs would disagree with them. One suggests a need for “pragmatism” with regard to these delimitation decisions.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, however, warned this afternoon against a ‘patchwork’ approach to the lockdown, including illogical limits that would confuse people. If people are already struggling to understand what rules apply to them, it is believed, reducing it to the local neighborhood in such an interconnected metropolitan area is not a good plan.
Andy Burnham also clarifies that he does not support the movement.
“This policy today took me by surprise,” he said of the announcement.
“That is problematic.
“There are a couple of things I would like to say to Conservative MPs and the Secretary of State. If we want to encourage people to be right about this issue, we will quickly find ourselves in a place where that is not possible.
“If we just look at the neighborhood and not at what is happening on its borders, it will not allow good decisions to be made.
He says the public will not forgive local Labor or Westminster Tories if they are seen to be playing politics with the answer.
Nonetheless, there is a power struggle over an image that is getting more and more complicated.
In recent weeks there have been tensions between local and national authorities in general; between the Conservative Health Secretary and his own MPs; between these same MPs and Andy Burnham; between Andy Burnham and at least some of his colleagues; and between politicians and their constituents, irritable and confused by the various lockdown measures.
If Brexit provided the first battleground for the Blue Wall, then Covid-19 may have opened a new front in the fight for control.