Boris Johnson’s decision to give English local councils and metro mayors a role in suppressing the spread of coronavirus is a small step in the right direction. Mr Johnson has been outpaced by the virus for months while touting plans to defeat the disease. None have worked, which is why he is having to ask local leaders for help. The government now says every part of the country will be placed into one of three tiers of coronavirus restrictions – medium, high alert or very high alert – depending on the rate of infection. Crucially, local authorities who agree to a government designation receive a financial package to boost local public health systems and to ensure that they can quarantine people who test positive.
This makes sense as compliance with isolation is critical to stopping the disease’s spread and local politicians know their patches better than those in London. England is the most centralised democracy in the western world. There is a small window of opportunity for a more devolved system to work. The scheme requires improving. The chancellor’s U-turn last Friday over reinstating a version of the furlough scheme has not gone far enough. Companies hit by stricter local restrictions rather than shutdown will need more help, as will lower paid workers, and there will have to be assistance for the self-employed left without income through no fault of their own.
No one wants another severe nationwide lockdown to be imposed. Mr Johnson’s government had until now thought that its Covid response could be run from its London power base, where it could dispense political favours. This farce was exposed when parts of Greater Manchester were shown last month to have been taken hastily out of a lockdown to placate local Tory MPs – leading to a surge in Covid infections. Ministers had also deluded themselves that a function of a public health test-and-trace system could be run by private companies. It has failed miserably. The testing was too slow, with few contacts found and no meaningful follow-up of the infected. More than £10bn has been spent on a system that has contributed to rising rates of Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. The Tory peer in charge, Dido Harding, should be replaced by a competent official and the system handed over entirely to local authorities and the NHS.
It is hardly surprising that local leaders have been reluctant to give Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Events have shown that the prime minister has few scruples about using the pandemic to put a squeeze on political opponents. Earlier this year the government bailed out private train operators who had treated passengers to a terrible service, while Labour’s Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has been forced to take out loans on onerous terms and accept ministerial interference to keep the highly efficient tube service running. Mr Johnson also has form when it comes to buying off voters with state money. Before the last election, one analysis suggested, ministers used a government regeneration scheme to target millions of pounds in grants at marginal Conservative seats rather than deprived communities.
Regional politicians have a stronger hand to play this time. The prime minister’s inept handling of the Covid crisis has left poorer northern England facing tougher restrictions than the wealthier southern part of the country. This chipped away at the prime minister’s claim he would “level up” the country and threatened to blunt a key campaigning message. Hence Mr Johnson has been forced to negotiate from a disadvantage with political opponents who next year will contest 12 mayoral seats.
The government’s incompetence and its repeated failure to get control of viral spread have eroded public trust just when the prime minister needs it most. Mr Johnson must stop playing politics with baffling plans that do not work and instead get on top of the virus so that the country can move on.