Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham hits back at Tory MPs who told him to 'engage' with Tier 3 Covid rules

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham is opposing tougher Covid measures unless more support is given to businesses. Credit: PA

A letter from a group of Tory MPs telling local leaders in Greater Manchester to "engage" with the government's regional approach to Covid restrictions has been criticised by mayor Andy Burnham.

Mr Burnham and cross-party local leaders from the region are opposing Tier 3 restrictions without greater financial support for workers and businesses.

The different tiers only apply to England as health measures are devolved. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own sets of coronavirus measures.

Speaking on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, the Greater Manchester mayor said: "I'm not sure a sort of 'we're alright Jack' letter from a group of southern Conservative MPs is going to cut much ice here.

"I would say to them some of them represent constituencies whose cases were higher than ours when we went into national lockdown.

"Anywhere could end up in Tier 3 this winter. In fact, I would say places are likely to end up in Tier 3 this winter, therefore it's everyone's concern that we protect the lowest paid in our communities."

The letter has also been attacked by Conservative MPs as being “very ill judged”.

As well as calling for more support for businesses forced to close under the tougher measures - Mr Burnham has threatened legal action - the mayor, along with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, is instead calling for a short national lockdown, arguing it would be fairer and would get his constituents’ greater support.

However, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove accused Mr Burnham of "posturing" and called for action "to save people's lives".

Covid tiers: What are the differences between each alert level?

  • Medium (Tier 1) - Rule of six applies indoors and outdoors. Pubs and restaurants close at 10pm.

  • High (Tier 2) - Households must not mix indoors in any setting including pubs and restaurants. Rule of six applies outdoors

  • Very high (Tier 3) - Households must not mix indoors, or in private gardens. Rule of six applies in outdoor spaces including parks. Pubs and bars which don't serve meals will be closed

It comes as confusion surrounds talks with regional leaders and government over the potential tougher restrictions for Greater Manchester, with Downing Street saying fresh talks had been set up for the weekend, only for Mr Burnham’s office to deny this.

The Labour mayor has also blamed Chancellor Rishi Sunak for being “the problem” in the row over a lockdown for Greater Manchester, as confusion was cast over talks with Downing Street.

He has called for a return to the generosity of the original furlough scheme that saw the Treasury pay 80% of workers wages, but Mr Sunak has only offered a 66% subsidy for those whose firms forced to shut by Tier 3 measures.

Meanwhile, 20 Tory MPs, whose constituents are currently under the lowest level of restrictions, wrote an open letter to Mr Burnham and the Labour leader urging them to get the virus “under control” in Manchester to avoid the “pain” of a national lockdown.

Led by Jerome Mayhew, the MP for Broadland in Norfolk, they said: “We know you are calling for a national lockdown now but urge you to reconsider.”

They highlighted coronavirus rates that show some of their areas having rates far lower than Manchester’s.

“Given this disparity, it does not make sense to shut down the whole country when the virus is spiking in particular locations,” the MPs continued.

“It is very clear to us – and the people we represent – that the local and regional approach is the right response to the current situation.

“We urge you to work with the government to get the virus under control in Greater Manchester, so we can all avoid the pain of another national lockdown.”

Andy Burnham has branded Rishi Sunak as being “the problem” in the row over a lockdown for Greater Manchester. Credit: PA

Senior Conservative William Wragg, whose Hazel Grove constituency is in Greater Manchester, recommended his colleagues “concern themselves with their own constituencies”.

“I would not wish tighter restrictions on their constituents,” he said.

“We’re willing to work constructively to improve the situation in Greater Manchester & would ask for the short time and space to do so.”

Christian Wakeford, the Tory MP for nearby Bury South, said politicians in the region were “united in opposing Tier 3 in its current form” in order to get the “best solution” for residents.

“Interventions from fellow members who don’t understand the situation are neither wanted nor helpful,” he added.

Boris Johnson is keen to impose regional lockdowns, rather than a country-wide one. Credit: PA

Jackie Doyle-Price, who’s Essex constituency of Thurrock remains at the lowest level of restrictions, was also critical of the “badly done” letter.

“There is much collaboration across Greater Manchester to seek a workable solution,” she said.

“It is very ill judged to seek to make this issue partisan.”

Andy Burnham said money for the Eat Out To Help Out scheme should have been used to support businesses forced to close. Credit: PA

Other signatures of the letter included Ashford MP Damian Green, Yeovil’s Marcus Fysh and North Cornwall’s Scott Mann.

Their letter echoed the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson early this week as he continued to resist imposing a short national “circuit-breaker” lockdown, a measure suggested by the government’s scientific advisers.

“Closing businesses in Cornwall, where transmission is low, will not cut transmission in Manchester,” he said in a Downing Street press conference.

However, as the row between the regional leaders and Downing Street continued, Mr Burnham partly blamed Mr Sunak, but said ultimate responsibility lies with the prime minister.

“I think the problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor," the former Labour frontbencer said.

"I think he’s made wrong judgements throughout this.”

He criticised the Eat Out to Help Out meal subsidy scheme as a “poor judgment”, and added: “The cost of that should have been paying for the furlough now.”

But he insisted, during the interview conducted on Friday, that the failure ultimately lies with Mr Johnson: “He shouldn’t be allowing the Treasury to run the policy”.

Mr Burnham and council leaders have insisted they “are ready to meet at any time” in order to broker an agreement with No 10 but there was a failure in communication on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, Mr Burnham said he will be having a call with the prime minister's chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister over lockdown restrictions, later in the day.

Asked if he was going to be speaking with Mr Johnson, Mr Burnham told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "I was due to speak to Sir Ed Lister today so that's the call I was expecting to take later this morning but beyond that I'm ready to speak to ministers to try to resolve this situation."

Currently, Tier 3 restrictions are only in place in Merseyside. Credit: PA Graphic

However, on Sunday, Mr Gove accused local leaders in Greater Manchester of "political positioning.

"I want to reach an agreement with the political leadership in Greater Manchester," the Cabinet Office Minister told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

"I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they've indulged in and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS.

"Instead of press conferences and posturing what we need is action to save people's lives."

On Friday, Mr Johnson threatened to impose measures without local support as he warned that “time is of the essence” and that “tragically more people will die” with each day of delay.

The row rumbled on as new controls came into force on Saturday, including in Lancashire and London, meant 28 million people, more than half of England, are living under heightened restrictions.

Mr Johnson has been under increased pressure to accept a short national lockdown known as a “circuit-breaker” to get a grip on the resurgence of Covid-19.

Government adviser Sir John Bell, the regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told the BBC the national measure might be needed, potentially even including a two-week closure of schools in England.

Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt added he had “sympathy” for the measure, which has been suggested by Labour and the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

The prime minister has been favouring local measures to try to slow the spread of the disease, but on Friday acknowledged he “can’t rule anything out” in taking national action.

Lancashire joined the Liverpool region in entering Tier 3 on Saturday, meaning with pubs and bars closed unless they can serve meals and household mixing banned indoors and in gardens.

Tier 2 measures were also introduced in London, Essex, York, Elmbridge, Barrow-in-Furness, North East Derbyshire, Erewash and Chesterfield.

They prohibit people mixing inside with those from other households, including in pubs and restaurants, renewing calls from businesses for greater financial support.

The British Chambers of Commerce told the prime minister that any new lockdown restrictions must come with “truly commensurate” financial support or risk “catastrophic economic consequences”.

In a letter to Mr Johnson on Saturday, they raised particular concern about the Tier 2 restrictions imposed on London and other areas on Saturday because they “dramatically” hamper businesses without extra support.