When the Prime Minister announced that England would have to enter into a second national lockdown for four weeks, from 4th November to 2nd December, it was on the understanding that “the restrictions would be eased and regions would go back to the tiered system”. The public and parliamentarians did not expect that this would mean 99% of the country being put into Tiers 2 and 3 of the Government’s revised system.
Chris Smith (Managing Director, Centre for the New Midlands CIC) argues that the Government needs to desperately change its methods and stop its ‘top-down’ approach to public health. Regions need to be empowered and trusted to exit the lockdown according to the most localised data possible, to protect lives and keep businesses in business.
National government, despite what some may have you believe, has delivered some major and transformative projects throughout this crisis. Whether it’s the Furlough scheme; the major investment in both R&D and procurement of vaccines or dare I say, the roll out of a nationwide COVID testing system. These programmes have been all consuming on the Westminster machinery and have caused all sorts of political headaches for a Government which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, however they are now all embedded as key pillars of the overall national response to the pandemic – at what cost is another debate of course. It is difficult to see how these programmes could have been created and delivered at the scale that they have been unless they were coordinated nationally.
However, the announcement from the Health Secretary on 26th November confirming the Tiers that people will find themselves in on 2nd December have further punctured the mood of a nation already reeling from the dire economic assessments made the previous day by the Chancellor in his Spending Review. The Government’s determination to avoid another ‘King of the North’ moment and refuse to engage meaningfully with both regional and local authorities is another major misjudgement of the mood of both parliamentarians and the general public who are growing increasingly weary of the restrictions placed on their lives and crucially, the inconsistency of the data and messaging to justify such acts. The notion of suddenly just opening up society would be wholly irresponsible; Covid and its threat to public health has not gone away but the public’s willingness to be dictated to by Westminster is on the verge of vanishing.
So why is this Government insistent on getting its fingerprints all over every aspect of the crisis? Empowering regional leaders with the freedom, and responsibility, to exit the national lockdown in a way which works best for their communities could provide the perfect kickstart to an enhanced, grown-up debate about the role of regional vs national politics to improve people’s lives and how we build stronger communities. It is not too late for the Government to provide local leaders with the opportunity and freedoms to demonstrate their capabilities to lead and make decisions on behalf of their communities. What are they so afraid of?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the public were broadly supportive of the Government’s actions in a time of global uncertainty and there was a general reluctant acceptance that mistakes were going to be made along the way. However, we are now 8 months on from then initial national lockdown and the Government is in the firing line again for the way it is has handled the crisis. It is being vilified in the press; has its own backbenchers now publicly distancing themselves from the Health Secretary’s orders; is losing ground to the Opposition in terms of polling and seems to be losing the confidence of the British people as restrictions on civil liberties and businesses are prevented from trading again.
On 12th October, the Prime Minister declared in his Coronavirus statement that “we are entering a new and crucial phase of our fight against Coronavirus. Because the number of cases has gone up four times in four weeks and it is once again spreading among the elderly and vulnerable”. Number 10 used the speech to introduce three levels of Covid Alert stating that “the majority of the country will, for now, be at medium”.
Two weeks later and supported by the Chief Medical Officer’s horror forecasts that without national interventions there could be up to 4,000 deaths a day, the Prime Minister ruled that the country needed a new national lockdown (for England) but that “they will end on Wednesday 2nd December, when we will seek to ease restrictions, going back into the tiered system on a local and regional basis according to the latest data and trends.” The press conference hadn’t even finished and people started to find big glaring holes in the data, leading to both Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty finding themselves having to explain the data to a Parliamentary committee.
On 26th November, the Health Secretary informed the nation that rather than the claim of 12th October and the ‘majority’ being able to function with ‘some’ normality, just 1.27% of the population (713,573 people living in the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly) would be living their lives within the ‘Medium’ tier, having the privilege of being able to meet with upto 5 other people indoors or spend money on a drink in a pub without having to order a ‘substantial food offering’.
The Health Secretary informed Parliament that from 2nd December, 55 million people would be placed into High or Very High tiers, but that there would be a review after a fortnight and then weekly assessments to determine if areas had followed the rules sufficiently in order to have restrictions eased. This is not what the public expected to hear from the Health Secretary or what the data at both a local and regional level indicates should have been the case. Such a lazy broad-brush approach to restricting the way people live their lives is simply unacceptable in a supposedly sophisticated democracy.
This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a national framework created by which local authorities should operate. A well thought through Tier system could provide a sensible framework for local leaders (at either a regional or more localised level) to determine the appropriate restrictions by which their communities need to operate within. The national Government may well advise that people shouldn’t leave their regions to prevent spread of Covid more broadly across the country.
However, we are in such a different position to the first lockdown, but the Government has not adjusted its approach as such. Thanks to comprehensive testing and enhanced statistical capability, the country has the data readily available and also has the local infrastructure across Local Authorities; Public Health; Local Enterprise Partnerships; Policing; not for profit sector (I could go on) to be able to make justifiable decisions to people at a much more localised level than the Health Secretary is willing or able to do.
The specific imposition of Tier 3 rules for 23 million people is simply unjustifiable when you read of cases such as ‘Warwick’ district, at a lower-tier Local Authority level having a 7-day average case rate of 164.2 but yet its residents find themselves in Tier 3 under the new announcements. If one looks at the data specifically within Coventry for week commencing 14-20th November, the wards of ‘Binley and Willenhall’ and ‘Bablake’ experienced confirmed rates per 100k of population of 443 and 305; 78 and 51 confirmed cases respectively. All other areas of the city were below 300 cases per 100k and all of the relevant trends moving in the right direction.
In return for more responsibility for setting and easing restrictions on communities (assuming local authorities want these powers of course) the national Government should be expecting even more emphasis from local authorities on reducing hotspots in their localities (which I am sure is already a specific approach being adopted). The national Government – with the overall responsibility for the nation’s health – would ultimately have the power to overturn decisions or intervene if it had specific concerns about certain areas.
If the Government wants to restore its credibility and change its relationship with the country, it desperately needs to stop this top-down approach (which you wouldn’t typically associate with a Conservative government either). The likelihood is that this isn’t the last national lockdown that the Government will seek to impose as fears of a third wave of Covid will inevitably return after the Christmas period. It isn’t too late for the Government to accept that their blanket approach to the easing of the lockdown has been a mistake and redirect its focus to empowering communities and ‘giving back control’ to local and regional decision makers. The Devolution Genie is very much out of the bottle in terms of the way in which Westminster has been forced to engage with the devolved national parliaments; the time has come for the Government to urgently reconsider and adapt its approach to the regions of England.
About Chris Smith:
Chris is the Managing Director of the Centre for the New Midlands, co-founding the organisation in January 2020. Chris has over 15 years of experience working within the Higher Education sector, with extensive experience in stakeholder engagement; fundraising; student recruitment and management information.
Chris began his career within Advancement in 2010 at Coventry University, before joining the University of Westminster as Director of Development and Alumni Relations in 2016. Chris was promoted to lead the University of Westminster’s External Relations directorate, overseeing the institution’s alumni engagement and development programmes; alongside the delivery of its Short Courses’ provision and Corporate Partnerships’ strategy. Chris has led international award-winning teams and takes great pride in building strong and effective teams throughout his career.
Chris co-founded the AlSadi Changing Lives Programme which over the past decade has provided hundreds of students from the UK with fully funded volunteer programmes to Jordan, working with some of the nation’s finest third sector organisations.
Chris has previously worked within student recruitment and strategic planning as well as working within the Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Chris is also a former Students’ Union President and has previously worked for the Saga Group plc.
Chris is proud to have served as a member of the NSPCC Business Board in Coventry and Warwickshire for over two years and as a Trustee of the University of Westminster Students’ Union. Chris is an avid Tottenham Hotspur supporter and a ‘Man of Kent’ by birth but an ‘adopted’ Coventrian having lived in the city since 2003.
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