Boris Johnson is ready to offer tens of millions of pounds to head off a northern revolt against tougher coronavirus curbs in which key Tories have sided with a Labour mayor.
Downing Street wants to pressure Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, into accepting Tier 3 restrictions today while dangling extra cash for the region if a deal is reached.
Senior Tories, including Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee and MP for Altrincham & Sale West, have aligned themselves with Mr Burnham in resisting Tier 3. “We simply haven’t been given the evidence that it would be effective,” Sir Graham said.
However, the first cracks in the region’s united front against London appeared last night as its Tory MPs said that the mayor’s stance was keeping residents in “a state of suspended terror” and urged him to strike a deal.
The dispute came as:
•Ministers resisted a national “circuit breaker” lockdown after Labour said several might be needed that could last longer than three weeks.
•Slowly rising admissions of Covid-19 patients to intensive care suggest that the country is undergoing a “slow burn” rather than a second wave, a senior doctor said.
•There were 924 more Covid-related admissions to hospital yesterday, with 16,982 more cases and 67 deaths.
•A key scientific adviser warned that fining people for not self-isolating would backfire by making them scared to report symptoms, as even the most optimistic government estimate says that 40 per cent of people are not staying at home for two weeks as instructed.
Talks yesterday between Mr Burnham and Mr Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Sir Edward Lister, were described as “constructive”, with more discussions planned for today. “I think people need to sleep on stuff this evening,” one government source said.
Downing Street has not ruled out imposing the restrictions but has accepted that they are more likely to work if backed by local leaders and believes that support for Mr Burnham’s position will ebb away as the hospitals fill.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, accused Mr Burnham of political “posturing” and suggested that he was putting lives at risk by continuing to hold out against Tier 3, which would involve the shutdown of pubs and other leisure venues. He told Andrew Marr on Times Radio that it was perplexing for the mayor to oppose Tier 3 while backing a national “circuit-breaker” lockdown, saying that Labour had “performed so many pirouettes that I’m surprised that Keir Starmer doesn’t turn up in a tutu”.
Mr Burnham accused the prime minister of exaggerating the situation, saying that intensive care units were only at a quarter of their April peak and pointing out that cases had been falling in Manchester for several days.
Mr Burnham wrote to Mr Johnson and opposition leaders yesterday to call for a “cross-party consensus”. Insisting the issue went far wider than the northwest, Mr Burnham claimed that most places would probably be in Tier 3 at some point and so parliament should “agree what is a fair level of support for people and businesses in those areas”.
Attacking “divisive” local agreements, he said that only a return to furlough payments of 80 per cent of salary, rather than the 67 per cent promised under the government’s job support scheme, would suffice. “The places they’re trying to close in Tier 3, pubs, bookies, gyms, these are places where people are on low wages, and you cannot take away their place of work and not give them support,” he told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has ruled out any furlough scheme change and was said to be “not budging”.
Last night five of Greater Manchester’s nine Tory MPs wrote to Mr Burnham warning him not to rely on their support for “extreme” lockdowns and raising a “real prospect” that hospitals would reach capacity. There are 1,785 Covid patients in northwest hospitals, more than a third of England’s total.