Greater Manchester given midday Tuesday deadline for tier 3 deal

By Josh Halliday and Helen Pidd

The strictest Covid restrictions will be imposed on nearly 3 million people across Greater Manchester if no deal is reached by midday on Tuesday, the government has said in a dramatic ultimatum.

The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, warned northern leaders late on Monday night that if they fail to agree to pub closures and a ban on household mixing, the tier 3 measures will be brought in unilaterally.

He said: “I must advise the prime minister that despite our best endeavours we’ve been unable to reach agreement.”

Jenrick said in the statement: “The deteriorating public health situation in Greater Manchester means that we need to take action urgently. We have held discussions in good faith with local leaders for 10 days in order to ensure that the measures put in place were tailored to the local community.

“We have offered an extensive package of support for local people and businesses, proportionate to the approach we have taken in the Liverpool city region and Lancashire and in addition to the wider national support.”

Jenrick added that there were now more Covid-19 patients in Greater Manchester hospitals than in “the whole of the south-west and south east combined”. He added: “But unfortunately, despite recognising the gravity of the situation, local leaders have been so far unwilling to take the action that is required to get this situation under control.

“I have written to local leaders this evening to make clear that if we cannot reach agreement by midday tomorrow then I must advise the prime minister that despite our best endeavours we’ve been unable to reach agreement.

“It’s not too late for local leaders to work with us to take action for the sake of the people of Greater Manchester.”

Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central, responded to Jenrick’s statement by tweeting: “Will they now engage in meaningful discussions then? Only two meaningful ministerial meetings [have] taken place so far”

The high-stakes move was met with fury in Greater Manchester, where the Labour MP Andrew Gwynne accused the government of being “completely contemptuous” of the region, and council leaders said ministers had offered no compromise as they sought to close pubs, bars and other venues.

Gwynne, the MP for Denton and Reddish in Stockport, said: “I think it’s disgraceful that the government still hasn’t set out what their ‘offer’ is. Nor, I believe, have they notified the mayor or council leaders of this latest deadline.

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  • The “rule of six” applies, meaning socialising in groups larger than six people is prohibited whether indoors or outdoors.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work and are not counted as being part of the six-person limit.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered by phone or online.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors, and – if the rule of six is followed – indoors.
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply for socialising outdoors, for instance in a garden or public space like a park or beach.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered online or by phone.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with those they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport.
  • Travel is permitted to amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but people are advised to reduce the number of journeys where possible.
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody they do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting, private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply to outdoor public spaces, such as parks, beaches, public gardens or sports venues.
  • Pubs and bars are only permitted to remain open to operate as restaurants, in which case alcohol can only be served as part of a substantial meal.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but household mixing is not permitted.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people attending (15 and 30 respectively) but wedding receptions are not allowed.
  • The rules for exercise classes and organised sport are the same as in tier 2. They can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport. However, in Merseyside, gyms were ordered to close when it entered tier 3.
  • Travelling outside a very high alert level area or entering a very high alert level area should be avoided other than for things such as work, education or youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if travelling through as part of a longer journey.
  • Residents of a tier 3 area should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK, while people who live in a tier 1 or tier 2 area should avoid staying overnight in a very high alert level area.
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“They’re just completely contemptuous of Greater Manchester with their spin, threats and demands when all we want are workable measures and proper protections for our businesses and residents after three months of failed local lockdowns already.”

Sean Fielding, the Labour leader of Oldham council, said: “A deal would require both sides to compromise and consistently they’ve offered no compromise from the position they’ve had since the beginning. Why are they pretending this is a negotiation when they’re not prepared to negotiate?”

The move also risks infuriating influential Conservative MPs including Graham Brady and William Wragg, who both represent Greater Manchester constituencies and have made clear their opposition to tier 3 measures.

Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, told the health secretary, Matt Hancock, earlier on Monday that many people were sceptical that closing pubs, bingo halls and gyms would make a “significant difference” in tackling coronavirus.

Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, said he was “very disappointed” with the government ultimatum. He said: “There seems to be a real unwillingness from the government to listen to reason. I think they’ve tabled fairly badly worked-out regulations and are now refusing to recognise that and enter into a serious negotiation.”

Leese said there was “no evidence” that closing pubs and bars would bring down the high rates of infection or slow the rising number of hospital patients. He said he hoped that ministers would not impose tier 3 restrictions and that they would be able to reach an agreement before the noon deadline, but that seemed like a distant prospect.

He added: “If the government imposes tier 3 then we will obviously comply with it but is very, very difficult after having explanations from the government’s senior officials – the deputy chief medical officer – that says this is not really a solution to the problems we face, then suddenly to turn around and say, ‘oh sorry, we’ve changed our minds, it is a solution’.”

The government’s ultimatum came just six hours after a meeting between Jenrick and Greater Manchester leaders ended in disarray, prompting the mayor, Andy Burnham, to express his disappointment at the abrupt manner of the discussion.

In a statement earlier on Monday night, Burnham said he and council leaders were “surprised and disappointed” that Jenrick had withdrawn the offer of a hardship fund to help the low-paid only hours after government officials had proposed it.

One council leader described the call with Jenrick and Boris Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Sir Eddie Lister, as “very strange”. Another said it started positively, with talk of a new “hardship fund” to help the lowest paid, but the idea was killed before the meeting ended as government officials said the Treasury would not provide any more cash. “It was crazy. Something collapsed on the government’s side during the meeting,” said one.

As well as Greater Manchester, nearly 2 million people in South Yorkshire are expected to be placed under the strictest Covid restrictions within days.

As the Welsh government announced a two-week national “firebreak” from Friday, Hancock said discussions were continuing about placing large parts of northern England in tier 3 measures this week.

It is understood that the Sheffield city region, population 1.8 million, looks to be the closest to agreeing a deal with government, though it is some way from being finalised. An influx of students has helped Sheffield’s infection rate soar to 345 cases in every 100,000 people, more than double the England average, while Barnsley’s is nearly 400, just below the rates in parts of Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Three sources said they expected a Sheffield city region deal to be announced within days. One said they were not as opposed to tier 3 measures as leaders in Greater Manchester and that they expected their financial package to be similar to the £42m deal given to the Liverpool city region and Lancashire last week.

One senior South Yorkshire figure said: “We know our numbers are rising too fast. Government I think would have liked to bounce us into an agreement today, despite the fact I think there have only been two conversations in total, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t know why they want to use councils as political human shields on this stuff.”

In the Commons, Hancock thanked leaders in Lancashire for striking a tier 3 agreement on Friday and, in a message aimed at Burnham, said: “I’m sure that the willingness to put politics aside in the national interest and in the interests of the people we serve, will save lives and protect livelihoods.”

Discussions were ongoing with leaders in West Yorkshire, Nottingham, north-east England and Teesside, Hancock told MPs.

He said it was “absolutely vital” to act in Greater Manchester, where he said the infection rate among over-60s had risen over the past week from 171 cases for every 100,000 people to 280. The rate in Liverpool is 401 cases for every 100,000, and in Lancashire 241 per 100,000.

Hancock told the Commons that discussions were continuing with local leaders about introducing tier 3 measures – meaning the closure of many pubs, bars and other venues – across parts of northern England.

The government piled pressure on Burnham by saying that all free intensive care capacity in Greater Manchester would be used by the middle of next week if rates continued to rise, according to its own modelling.

But this was questioned by Prof Jane Eddleston, the region’s medical lead for the coronavirus response. She said that despite the “stark” figures, extra capacity would be available. “The system can cope. If one looks at the stark figures one might be mistaken for thinking ‘oh gosh’. But that does not take into account the additional capacity that will come into play,” she said.

There was also pushback from Greater Manchester’s Tory MPs. James Daly, the MP for Bury North, told Hancock there had been “no recorded outbreak” in any pub in his constituency.