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Paul Vallely: There is anger up here in the north

16 October 2020

London-centric politicians have prioritised the south, says Paul Vallely


Glenys Markland, a resident of Blackpool, watches the Prime Minister’s statement on the latest coronavirus restrictions, on Monday

Glenys Markland, a resident of Blackpool, watches the Prime Minister’s statement on the latest coronavirus restrictions, on Monday

PEOPLE are angry here, in the north of England. It is not always a coherent fury. Some are cross at the rigour of the coronavirus lockdown. Others are alarmed because the lockdown is not rigorous enough. Many are incensed at the Government’s inability to put in place a workable test-and-trace testing system. Some are simply angry with the virus itself. God appears to be getting off lightly in our secular age. Yet anger is a reasonable response.

The data are entirely clear that the pandemic has a fiercer grip here than down south. Statistics on testing are not reliable, since we are today testing far more. But the statistics on hospital admissions cannot be gainsaid: in Greater Manchester, we are on track, in a couple of weeks, to hit the same levels as in April. The statistics on deaths follow those on hospitalisations fairly inexorably.

Several reasons have been advanced for the potency of the plague up here. Among the most irritating are the scapegoating suggestions that northerners are somehow to blame for their own infection, although pictures of undisciplined late-night revellers are as common in London as Liverpool.

Then there are those who blame the weather. Newspapers that do not understand the difference between causation and correlation have been happily juxtaposing graphs of infection against charts of temperature, rainfall, and sunshine — with talk about how UV rays destroy the virus in the south but not the north. Blaming the weather conveniently relieves anyone of culpability.

But there is fault here, and it lies with this London-centric government. Test and Trace has been such a dismal failure, in part, because control-freak politicians and civil servants insisted on centralising the system rather than using the expertise of local public-health officials across the nation. But it is also because Westminster and Whitehall decision-makers eased the national lockdown precipitately after the first wave as soon as the figures fell in the capital — without due consideration of the impact elsewhere in the country.

During the first wave, infections rose to hospital-threatening levels first of all in London. The virus took longer to spread through the north. The result was that, when the first wave was played out in the capital, it still had a significant grip in the north. The lockdown was lifted too early here, with the result that our second wave began from a much higher baseline — with the virus at higher levels throughout the local population. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, warned the Government of this in May. But he was ignored.

That higher baseline was set in areas already known for the highest levels of deprivation in the UK. The virus here is at work in more overcrowded housing, and among people whose jobs make it far harder to work from home. In the south, twice as many employees can work from home as in the north because of the nature of their jobs. The Government knew all this full well.

Statisticians call it the “inequality gradient”. Boris Johnson’s inept government has made this steeper and starker than it need be. That’s why people up here in the north are angry — and quite right, too.

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