‘It’s my job to challenge the government’: Andy Burnham interviewed

Andy Burnham on challenging the government, social distancing and how his city copes in a crisis

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

Less than three weeks after Andy Burnham was elected mayor of Greater Manchester three years ago, the city was hit by the terrorist attack that claimed 22 lives at an Ariana Grande concert. Now Burnham is facing a very different sort of crisis as corona-virus sweeps through the north-west. Manchester is about two weeks behind London in the epidemic curve.

We had first met in his office to talk about the city and its politics. But that was at the start of last month — my questions, and his answers, were quickly overtaken by events. When we speak again, this time over Skype, much has changed. He has swapped the red-brick Victorian office in Manchester for his son’s bedroom in the loft, and he’s adjusting to being restricted to buying three craft lagers when he shops at Morrisons (‘They had to remove some offending items from my trolley because I had too many’). He has also had to adjust to a new role: Burnham has become an authoritative voice on the government’s response to Covid-19, due to his experience as health secretary during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

That pandemic was caused by a new strain of flu that turned out to be no more dangerous than an ordinary seasonal outbreak. But at the time, the government feared it was a lot worse and was, at one stage, warning of 65,000 deaths. I ask Burnham how close he came to any form of lockdown. ‘Yes, we did debate those things,’ he says. ‘I suppose luckily, in some ways, swine flu started to hit its peak in July and the school holidays came just at the right moment.’ Perhaps, he says, this bred complacency in the long term. ‘Because swine flu was dealt with successfully, people thought, oh, it’s easy to deal with a pandemic. Not just the UK, but countries around the world maybe have not done enough. Those that had Sars have got more of a grip on things: Singapore, South Korea. I think there are probably lots of lessons to learn.’

He’s keen to stress that this is not a party–political criticism. ‘I did tweet the Prime Minister the other day and offered some thanks for what he was doing,’ he says. The economic consequences of the lockdown mean he doesn’t envy the government now. ‘The way I describe it: we [the Gordon Brown government] had a financial crash in 2008 and swine flu in 2009. They’ve got it all in one go. I understand the scale of that challenge.’

Ten years ago, Burnham was seen as Labour’s rising star — a Blairite who flourished under Brown. He twice ran for his party’s leadership, losing to Ed Miliband in 2010 and then to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. His second campaign was pitched against ‘the Westminster bubble’, a theme he kept going when he comfortably won the Manchester mayoralty in 2017. He has been tipped — along with Sadiq Khan in London — as a potential returnee to national politics, but shows little interest at this time. He is currently running for re-election as Manchester mayor, but next month’s elections have been postponed until next year.

Burnham says it’s his job to lobby the government, or as he puts it, to keep ‘pushing them and nudging them and challenging them’. Currently he is arguing for tougher measures for businesses which fail to comply with social-distancing guidelines and place workers too closely together. Instructions to keep a two-metre distance ‘where possible’, he says, offer a massive ‘get-out clause’ to unscrupulous employers. He says he has received more than 1,000 emails from people working in unsafe conditions, and he is considering using health and safety legislation to force businesses to keep their employees safely apart.

But first he wants clearer guidance from the government — or, perhaps, police with a different approach to the lockdown. He was unimpressed, he says, when South Wales police admonished Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for Aberavon, for driving to visit his father, the former Labour party leader. ‘We wouldn’t want to see an erosion of confidence in the police at this particular moment in time,’ he says. ‘It’s an odd one, isn’t it, when police are pulling people over or whatever: yet we have warehouses or factories with widespread non-observance of the rules. They’re just completely left alone.’

Burnham convenes a Covid-19 emergency committee in Manchester which meets once a week. ‘It’s testing us on every level,’ he says. ‘It’s very challenging but I have a responsibility for health, unlike other mayors, so that is obviously taking a lot of my time.’ Following London’s ExCel centre, the Manchester Central exhibition hall is also being converted into an NHS Nightingale hospital, this time with 500 beds. The Nightingale name might not stick, though: ‘I’ve had a little bit of a local campaign here for it to be called the Seacole Hospital after Mary Seacole,’ he says, ‘Whether it will [be] or not, I don’t know. You could have Edith Cavell for Birmingham, Seacole for Manchester.’

For all the difficulties the lockdown poses, Burnham sees some upsides. ‘It makes us all slightly happier when we remind ourselves of the moral purpose of life — rather than all just ploughing on, doing our own thing, head down,’ he says. ‘Something about this moment will have a positive benefit. I think it will leave us more unified than we were before, remind us what’s really important in life. It will make us look out for our neighbours more than we have been doing in recent times. Yes, it’s going to be tough. But in the end, life is going to be different — and better — as a result of what we’re going through.’

Some changes, he says, should become permanent, such as the government’s pledge to house all homeless people. ‘It’s the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, definitely, but it’s the right thing to do at any time.’ His most memorable pledge when running for mayor was to end rough sleeping by 2020. At the last count, in September, there were still 195 on the city’s streets. When I suggest that the lockdown might end up kiboshing policies like the government’s plans to ‘level up’ the north-west, he says he expects the opposite. ‘The wider national economic recovery has to have that levelling up within it. So you give moral support to the areas of the country that will need most help getting back on their feet.’

Burnham has other reasons to be cheerful. He says he is enjoying the ‘fact that we would have been watching the Liverpool victory march right now’ — the club were on course to win the Premier League before the lockdown began. ‘When you’re an Evertonian like me, football grounds can be misery factories, so the turning off of the misery factories is a blessed relief for a few weeks.’ Despite his support for Everton, in every other regard Burnham seems like Mr Manchester. When not in lockdown his favourite pub is the Temple, a converted public toilet on Oxford Road; he’s a regular at Rudy’s pizza in Ancoats, and he was wearing Manchester bee cufflinks when we last met.

The bee, which has been an emblem of the city since the industrial revolution, became a symbol of solidarity after the 2017 attack. It was an emotional time to be living in Manchester — people flocked to vigils, and flowers piled up in St Ann’s Square. I ask if that sense of community can still exist when you have a virus that forces people to be locked in their homes? ‘Yes — it does very much remind me of that time, everybody just going the extra mile for each other.’

But in a time of lockdown, when most of us aren’t going anywhere, he does worry about the lack of ‘person to person contact’ and he is planning to open up the mental health phone line used by arena attack victims to those currently feeling isolated or anxious. One thing that hasn’t changed is his faith that the people of Greater Manchester will look out for one another throughout the crisis. ‘That spirit is stronger here I think than in other parts of the country. It’s a place that I always say doesn’t “walk on by”.’ Greater Manchester may certainly need that spirit in the weeks ahead.

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