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Without more funds, ‘Tier 3 restrictions could backfire’, Bishop of Manchester warns

21 October 2020

‘People in Manchester are notoriously determined and we will dig deep into our resilience’


People wearing face masks walk near a mural of a nurse in the northern quarter of Manchester on Wednesday

People wearing face masks walk near a mural of a nurse in the northern quarter of Manchester on Wednesday

THE Government will “run the risk of increasing infection rather than driving it down” if it does not offer the money needed to support the people of Manchester, the Bishop, Dr David Walker, has warned, as the region prepares for Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions this weekend.

Talks between Greater Manchester authorities and the Government over a financial package for the region broke down on Tuesday afternoon. The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, and local leaders, including some Conservative MPs, had requested £90 million to cover the cost of an 80-per-cent furlough and self-employed scheme. Otherwise, Mr Burnham said, a “bare minimum” of £65 million was needed.

The Government instead offered £60 million, which was rejected. The Prime Minister later described the offer as “generous” and said that this sum would be distributed anyway, but via borough councils.

There was anger at the Government’s refusal to meet demand, Dr Walker said on Wednesday, “and a feeling that decisions are being taken by people who are not close to the north-west and Manchester, and do not know these areas well enough to take those decisions effectively. . . The impression here is that the national Government could have been more flexible to bridge that final gap.”

Tier 3 means that pubs and restaurants are closed, households are banned from mixing indoors and outdoors, and there is guidance against travelling in and out of the area. Places of worship remain open in all three tiers. The maximum number allowed at weddings (15) and funerals (30) stays the same, but wedding receptions are no longer permitted in Tier 3 regions.

Addressing the Government directly, Dr Walker said: “Please find that extra small amount of cash that would make the difference, so that the leaders in the Greater Manchester can implement a response to Tier 3 that they believe will keep people safe.”

He explained: “My diocese has the highest proportion of poor parishes than any diocese in the Church of England. There is a correlation between the vulnerability of jobs during lockdown to the levels of poverty that there are. If people who are put out of work because of the new regulations are not given an appropriate living wage to survive on, then people will take risky decisions not to self-isolate, not to get tested, for fear that they will be told to stay at home when they can’t afford to do so.

“The danger is that not providing the right financial package will actually run the risk of increasing infection rather than driving it down.”

Mr Burnham said on Wednesday: “Our aim in this negotiation was simple: to agree a deal based on what people will actually need to get through this rather than the arbitrary sum being forced on us all one by one. We hoped to set a template for others to use. Presumably, that’s why the Government walked away.”

Dr Walker agreed: “Establishing at this stage some clearer principles, ideally agreed at parliamentary level in the Commons and Lords, that actually set out the basis on which a fair amount of financial support will be given — that is what is need. What Manchester was trying to do was set out what levels of support were required, but that was pushed away.”

For some, a circuit-breaker lockdown for a set period — as is being introduced in Wales on Friday — would be preferable to the uncertainty of restrictions that keep people out of work for an indefinite period, he said.

“We are coming into the winter: heating costs start to go up, people have Christmas to think about. This is not a good time to find that your work has shut down. . . For all we know, we could be in Tier 3 until the spring. It doesn’t give people confidence.”

None the less, communities and churches in the region would remain resilient, he said. “Unless there is an agreement that provides an appropriate financial package and regulations, morale will take some time to recover.

“People in the Manchester area are notoriously determined, and we will dig deep into our resilience — as we had to do that after the Arena attack three years (News, 19 May 2017) — and support each other. If the Government walk away from us, that does not mean we will stop doing the work — whether that is the Church of other bodies — to keep each other safe. But the lack of agreement makes that task harder.”

Liverpool and surrounding areas have been under Tier 3 restrictions since last Wednesday, Lancashire since Saturday. The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said on Tuesday: “Those of us who live here in the [north-west] continue to want the best for the whole nation. We remember the commitment of the Chancellor in March, that help would be offered ‘whatever it takes’. I hope and pray that this generous spirit will not be forgotten now.”

South Yorkshire is also moving to Tier 3 this Saturday. A similar negotiation was undertaken with leaders in the region, who accepted a £41-million package from the Government to support businesses and employees.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer described the Government’s treatment of the north-west as a “disgrace” on Tuesday. “It is treating millions of people with contempt.”

During PMQs on Wednesday, he told the Prime Minister to “stop bargaining with people’s lives, stop dividing communities, and provide the support that’s needed in Manchester”. Mr Johnson told MPs that £60 million would be provided to Greater Manchester via its borough councils.

Speaking before PMQs, Dr Walker had said: “If there isn’t a satisfactory deal I suspect the Government may try to divide and rule, pick off local authorities, do a deal with those, and try to drive others into line. I don’t think that’s a very good way. . . The whole point of having a mayor is that these big strategic decisions need to be taken at that level, not a subsidiary one.

“We will urge people to obey the law and encouraging them to follow advice where they can, but we know that compliance is likely to be lower if there is not the kind of comprehensive package we had in the early spring, that allowed people to stay at home and keep themselves and their families safe without risking their wellbeing.”

In a debate on health protection and coronavirus restrictions in the House of Lords on Tuesday evening, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the Government’s approach to “needs to pay more attention to a bottom-up approach of wisdom, rather than simply relying on top-down pragmatism and the push and pull of financial incentives.”

She agreed with comments made by Dr Walker last week, saying that “policies, such as fines, are out of touch with many. It has led to frustration and resentment nationwide.”

Bishop Mullally called for a “whole-systems approach” to public health that listened to nurses and health practitioners on the ground. “They can provide grass-roots insights, learning the needs of local people and business owners and, therefore, how to bring about change in behaviour.

“In this way, rules that come down from the top are informed by real experiences from those on the ground, from the bottom up — public health professionals, with their knowledge, skills and relationships, working with people and the population to promote well-being. This approach is often seen in those countries doing far better with Covid-19 than we are.”

Trust and power must be extended to the people “most familiar with their situations and best equipped to bring about change”. She asked the Government what was being done to ensure that future restrictions were better informed by “local wisdom” as well as science.

London is currently under Tier 2 restrictions, which will be reviewed next week. In Wales, churches and church buildings are to close from Friday when the circuit-break lockdown in the country is introduced, ending on 9 November.

Funerals and wedding services for up to 30 people (and wakes, but not receptions) can continue, however, and clergy may enter the buildings to broadcast services without a congregation and run existing foodbanks. Permissible arrangements may be made for Remembrance Sunday.

A statement from the Bench of Bishops on Monday said: “Whilst this will be disappointing news to many, the Bishops are supportive of this new approach to reducing the transmission rate of Coronavirus. We urge all our church communities to do all they can to comply with these new restrictions but, importantly, to continue their vital support to the most vulnerable in our communities.”

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, called on Friday for people not to be “downhearted” about the start of the two-week “firebreak” lockdown, due to begin at 6 p.m. He said: “The two-week ‘firebreak’ is going to impact on the lives of all of us. As a church community, we are, of course, disappointed. It means that our church buildings are going to be closed for three Sundays. That’s a particular blow, of course, for people who are perhaps just only now getting used to the fact that their buildings are able to be reopened for worship.

“So, if you’re disappointed, I understand. But please don’t be downhearted. Please remember to be patient in these times of adversity. It’s only two weeks; so please try your very best to respect what you’re being asked to do.”

He also asked people to keep decision-makers in their prayers, and “remember that they do all of that to try and maintain, as best they can, a way of life that we can still sustain; and they do it doing their best to try and benefit us all in these difficult times. So my keyword is not ‘disappointment’, my keyword is ‘patience’, please.”

The Mothers’ Union in the diocese of Llandaff has launched a digital-inclusion campaign to tackle renewed isolation among older people. The charity is to loan for a period of two months smart tablets with internet access to people who are isolated — firstly as a trial among its own members with the intention of rolling out to communities. Volunteers will teach the recipients basic digital skills virtually so that they can keep in contact with loved ones and attend online church services.

The President of MU Llandaff, Sue Rivers, said: “Our aim is to ensure no one is left behind. Despite our best efforts, some individuals are still isolated and long to see familiar faces — perhaps friends or relatives living away. Many churches are putting their services online either via YouTube or livestreamed on Facebook and without a digital device, these cannot be accessed.”

The ecumenical group Christians on Ageing has also been considering how churches can maintain contact with older people. In its booklet Reflections During a Pandemic, published on Thursday, different authors explore key social issues raised during the pandemic, including isolation, and how churches can help.

In relation to care homes, the director of Embracing Age, Tina English, also suggests buying a tablet and installing Zoom and other useful apps to help residents stay connected. Churchgoers could write letters, or children draw pictures for residents; others might source PPE; or create “goodie bags” for care home staff to show appreciation.

A “snapshot” report from the diocese of Bath & Wells based on a survey of 17 groups of churchpeople in June found that not everyone missed in-church services, and that most people believed online services would continue post-pandemic.

“There was very little resentment from regular churchgoers that specific types of worship have been lost, e.g. very few commented on the lack of holy communion,” the report says. Some vicars even expressed relief at not having to conduct Easter services, while people who were not regular churchgoers and young people were more likely to miss the building and special events or festivals.

The research was organised by the post-Covid emergence group, which was established by the Bishop of Bath & Wells earlier in April. The discussion groups, which included clerics, chaplains, churchwardens, and churchgoers, variously reported “sadness for what has been lost” and “a desire not to return to the way things were”.

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