A Lancashire council leader has insisted that local politicians fought for “a good deal” for the county when it was faced with tough Covid restrictions at the height of the pandemic.Advertisement
It comes after it emerged that there was a perception within government at the time that the area was more compliant with ministerial demands than neighbouring Greater Manchester.
Alistair Bradley, the leader of Chorley Council, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that Lancashire’s 15 local authorities had engaged with the government on the basis “that they were going to do this to us anyway”.
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He was referring to the time in October 2020 when the localised system of Covid ‘tiers’ was introduced in an attempt to stem rapidly rising infection rates by imposing restrictions of different degrees throughout the country depending on how bad things were in each area.
The policy has been the subject of scrutiny at the Covid-19 Inquiry in recent days, with the then health secretary Matt Hancock saying on Friday that some regional leaders “were not constructive” during discussions about its implementation.
Earlier in the week, minutes from the government’s high-level Covid-O committee were read out by Greater Manchester’s metro mayor Andy Burnham – who had a standoff with the government over moving his patch into the toughest ‘Tier 3’ band – in which it was stated that: “Lancashire should have a lighter set of measures imposed than Greater Manchester since they had shown a greater willingness to co-operate.”
Cllr Bradley, who also chairs the Lancashire district leaders group, said that it would have been “absolutely wrong” to determine restrictions for such a reason. However, he added that Lancashire’s leaders had battled hard to get the best package of financial support for the county – knowing that the most restrictive rules were always likely to come the county’s way because of high Covid case numbers.
“[The conversation with the government] was: ‘You’re going to do this to us anyway, so how are you going to make reparation to people in those communities?’
“We couldn’t get away from the numbers, they were always going to put us in that bracket – so we were asking, ‘Can we have this?’ and ‘Can we do [it] this way?’
“Andy Burnham had to speak up for all of Manchester and we had to speak up for all of Lancashire. But sometimes you had to be very robust with the government and sometimes government took that personally,” Cllr Bradley said.
He added that all 15 Lancashire leaders “pulled together” in a way he had never witnessed before. However, he also acknowledged that politics may have played a part in how Lancashire was viewed by ministers because Lancashire County Council – as one of the leading authorities in the tier discussions – was Conservative controlled and so requests for support may have been “expressed” in a different way.
In spite of the sentiment minuted at the Covid-O committee, Lancashire was not treated any differently to Greater Manchetser in terms of restrictions – with both areas ultimately being placed in Tier 3 and seeing socialising between different households banned in indoor and many outdoor settings. For Lancashire, the rules came into force on 17th October, after a week of intense negotiations ended in agreement over a support package, while Greater Manchester was moved into the top tier just days later after their talks broke down.
The one notable difference for Lancashire when it first entered Tier 3 was actually in contrast not with Greater Manchester, but the Liverpool City Region, which had agreed to the highest level of restrictions slightly sooner and had been told that its gyms had to close – whereas in Lancashire, along with Greater Manchester, such facilities were allowed to remain open.
Somewhat paradoxically in view of the uproar that that decision caused on Merseyside at the time, Matt Hancock used his appearance at the Covid Inquiry on Friday to praise Liverpool’s leaders as being “easier to deal with” than those in Greater Manchester.
When the tiered system returned after a hiatus during a second nationwide lockdown in November 2020, Lancashire returned to Tier 3 – but was moved into a new Tier 4 just 48 hours before the end of the year. A third national lockdown then began in early January 2021.
Parts of Lancashire – Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Pendle and Hyndburn – had been in some form of ‘local lockdown’ since the summer, long before tiers were introduced, because of particularly high case rates in those areas.
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