Coronavirus: Greater Manchester leaders set to ask for £75m support

By Helen Pidd

Greater Manchester leaders are set to demand a £75m support package from government to break the increasingly tense standoff with ministers over the imposition of England’s strictest coronavirus restrictions.

With minutes to go before the noon deadline set by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, on Monday night, local leaders are understood to have agreed to ask for the £75m lump sum, which could be used to top up the wages of the lowest paid over winter.

They also expect to receive £22m for test and trace, however it is not clear if this would be in addition to the £75m.

It is understood that local officials met government officials on Tuesday morning to discuss the details of the deal, removing politicians from a process – albeit temporarily – that has become increasingly ugly.

The one-off £75m is more than the additional support given to Merseyside and Lancashire to enter tier 3 restrictions but it works out broadly similar per capita.

One local leader said they wanted “flexibility to use it to help where it’s needed most”. Another source said it would take them to the end of the financial year on 5 April.

Earlier Manchester city council’s leader, Sir Richard Leese, aid the region’s leaders are ready to drop one of their key demands – that hospitality workers should be paid 80% of their wages as furlough – as they seek a deal with the government on putting the region under the tightest coronavirus restrictions.

His comments came as the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, accused the government of provocation after a minister threatened to impose the tier 3 restrictions on the region if a deal wasn’t done by noon on Tuesday

“The Treasury have been very clear with us, that for them the national [job support scheme] is an absolute red line. So frankly we are clear that just simply pursuing [the more generous 80% level] is just leading to a complete stand-off. So we are looking at other ways to get into a position that we are comfortable with.”

He added: “To be honest I thought we were going to do a deal yesterday. On the basis of that, then I would probably put the odds at slightly worse than 50% [of reaching a deal], but the discussions last night do seem positive. And whilst we’ve got discussions taking place I will remain optimistic.”

Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, warned Burnham late on Monday night that if Greater Manchester fails to agree to pub closures and a ban on household mixing, then tier 3 measures will be brought in unilaterally.

Burnham, who insists he has cross-party backing among MPs and council leaders, said he was meeting Greater Manchester’s leaders on Tuesday morning to come up with a “fair funding framework” to compensate the region’s poorest workers, many of whom will be unable to make a living under tier 3 restrictions.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Burnham said: “A late-night ultimatum briefed to the media was a slightly provocative move, but I’m not coming on to rise to that. I’m going to try to be positive and respond and find a way forward.”

After issuing his ultimatum, Jenrick then wrote to Greater Manchester’s leaders to offer them £22m “to fund additional support for vulnerable people and redouble efforts on compliance and enforcement”.

On Tuesday morning, the business minister, Nadhim Zahawi, repeated this figure and warned that action is needed before intensive care units are overwhelmed – a claim denied by the city’s medical leaders.

Zahawi told Today: “We have been negotiating in good faith for 10 days with Andy Burnham and other local leaders in Greater Manchester. By the first week of November, if the trajectory continues at the rate it is at the moment, they will run out of ICU capacity in Greater Manchester.”

But Leese said £22m was simply the £8 per head offered to all areas which go into tier 3 to pay for enhanced test and trace. “We’re now talking about the business support package that will go with the £22m,” he said.

Lancashire and Liverpool both negotiated £30m for business support plus £8 a head for test and trace and enforcement.

One of Greater Manchester’s nine Conservative MPs told the Guardian on Monday that he did not want to push constituents into “destitution”.

Christian Wakeford, who was elected MP for Bury South in December, said while he was not wedded to Burnham’s insistence that furloughed workers be paid 80% of their wages, as during the first lockdown, there should be a “minimum floor”.

Wakeford said: “If it’s not 80%, it’s no lower than a set amount, whether that’s minimum wage or something else, so that we are not forcing people into destitution. I appreciate the knock-on effect that has because you couldn’t just introduce that for Greater Manchester, but I do think that’s an area that has unity between Conservatives and Labour.

“I don’t want to be a member of parliament who pushes someone into destitution so they can’t put food on the table just before Christmas.”