When the lockdown tiers are announced, it is inevitable that huge swathes of the north will be under much tighter restrictions than the south. It is not hard to see how a divided Britain translates into political trouble, as I sayin the magazine this week. Labour and northern leaders will claim that support packages would be more generous — and the situation better handled — if it was the south that was bearing the brunt. ‘It’ll be like flooding,’ warns one cabinet minister. ‘People will say: they’d take it more seriously if it was happening in Surrey.’
There’s a Tory worry that this situation could provide Labour with a wedge to drive between Johnson and his new northern supporters. You can already hear talk that Tories are happy to incarcerate the north with little additional financial support because life is continuing as normal in the south. One minister complains that the accusation ‘is nasty, sly politics — but it has a resonance’.
One of the problems is that, as Andy Burnham puts it, these restrictions seem like Hotel California: once an area is in lockdown, it never leaves. Another is that the government has been very vague about what pushes an area into lockdown. One of the reasons is that the government is responding to a constantly changing situation. As a Secretary of State puts it: ‘Whatever we may wish, we end up having to make it up as we go along.’ This risks creating the politically toxic charge that the Tories are experimenting on the north to try to find out what works.
One figure in government says that to deal with this charge, ‘You need independent criteria from the JBC [Joint Biosecurity Centre] which recommends things. That would be much better than ministers sitting in a room and making decisions.’ As this source puts it: ‘Clarity would get rid of the idea that different judgments are being applied to different places.’
But such clarity could be elusive. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is in favour of greater transparency but even he doesn’t favour a simple set of clear criteria, and as long as ministers are deciding which places are subject to what restrictions, there’ll be accusations of favouritism. Even if the process is not political, it will look as if it is.
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