Boris Johnson’s policy of local lockdowns will no doubt come under increased scrutiny after new restrictions were imposed on Greater Manchester and parts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Labour politicians have been quick to criticise the short notice of the overnight announcement while local residents have complained of confusion over the changes.
It comes at a time of growing unease among MPs about the local lockdown strategy itself. While the plan to go for local lockdowns as a way of avoiding a second national lockdown has been largely welcomed by the public, some believe that sentiment could change quickly – when voters find themselves placed in one.
‘It’s like public support for tax rises,’ says one Tory MP. ‘People say they back them because they don’t think they’ll be the ones paying. People support local lockdowns until they are the ones in it.’ As I say in the magazine this week, they may have a point. Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough in South Leicestershire, was initially very supportive of the government’s strategy. But that slowly changed as Leicester’s lockdown dragged on for nearly a month. A government loyalist, he has been reduced to adding #LetUsOut to his tweets.
A source of frustration among those affected by local lockdowns is that there are no objective criteria of what triggers – or maintains – local lockdown. In a recent meeting with a cross-party group of MPs, the Health Secretary and Dido Harding, head of test-and-trace, were insistent that there could be no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines as there are too many factors to consider.
However, without such clarity, MPs worry there will be local anger over the reasoning for their area being locked down. There is also a concern that there could be community tensions if whole towns have been shut when the problem is only in certain neighbourhoods.
Places currently in local lockdown still have access to emergency economic relief. Despite this, local business owners can feel as though they face a severe disadvantage. ‘It will be even worse when the furlough scheme ends,’ predicts one MP. The Treasury is reluctant to come up with any general local lockdown relief packages on the grounds that there is no way of knowing how many times these measures would be required.
Given that O’Brien is regarded as a government loyalist and he has become more publicly critical of the strategy as the Leicester lockdown has run on, there’s a worry in government that new MPs in red wall seats or MPs with small majorities may struggle considerably should the same happen in their constituency.
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