We’ve spent the past fortnight wondering how new Covid restrictions will affect us – with last-minute negotiations and scrambled messages from government and local leaders dominating headlines.
In times like these, it’s tempting to reach for catch-all terminology to help get critical information across quickly. The most severe restrictions put in place last week broadly clustered in the north west and north east of England. ‘Northern Lockdown’ seemed a fair description.
So, when it comes to The North, where do you draw the line? The M62? The Peak District? Watford Gap? It’s a tired old debate which usually provokes the sort of trivial banter that ought to be confined to first year student halls.
But our understanding of where regions start and stop is important. Precision is crucial during a crisis – and briefings on regional lockdowns over the past few weeks have shown how things can go wrong. People are sensitive about the places they call home, so when outsiders misunderstand (exhibit A), mislocate (exhibit B), or even misspell (exhibit C) them, the core message is often lost in frustration.
The accelerated pace of change has meant the media has also made missteps in its reporting of new measures. And as we should all now recognise, confusion is costly when it comes to public health.
Oversimplify, and you risk paying the price. Just as Labour once took support in Scotland for granted, last year’s election suggested it did the same in the north of England – with the party’s base in major cities not always extending out into surrounding towns. Now, the Tories are faced with an equally complex challenge – scores of their new MPs scattered across the north and midlands are looking to shore up support among new-found supporters by pressuring the PM to deliver on his promise to level up. A sense that the Government is taking a heavy handed and over-centralised approach to its Covid response has also become a gripe of some Conservative backbenchers.
The devolution agenda is coming back to bite too. A northern alliance spearheaded by Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham has shown that what regional mayors lack in hard power is far outweighed by their clout as local spokespeople. Even Tories Andy Street and Ben Houchen have got in on the action – keen to be allied to local voters ahead of their party, and with next May’s elections surely in mind.
Yesterday’s footage of Mayor Burnham receiving notice via the media of new Tier 3 lockdown measures in Greater Manchester could become one of the defining moments of this crisis. Public anger is infusing the battle between London and Manchester, with local leaders expressing frustration at allegedly receiving late or inaccurate briefings from government. This resentment speaks to a much larger issue, and one which cuts across party lines: the notion that many in the capital are incapable of understanding what matters to people in other parts of the UK. It’s no surprise that local councils are consistently more trusted than those in Westminster.
Cultural and economic patterns usually tell us more than geographic ones and understanding this was part of the reason Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were able to redraw the north’s political map on their way to landslide victory last year. At the peak of lockdown in spring, Number 10 seemed untouchable as the country briefly rediscovered a sense of national unity – with approval ratings higher than they have been for a decade and Downing Street’s press conferences able to command almost undivided attention.
The picture is much murkier now and, as we enter the next phase of the Covid crisis, the Government is quickly learning it needs to find a new way to address the nation.
James Snowdon is a senior account manager at Camargue