The Liverpool city region is a place used to standing apart. Usually, this is for our exploits as leaders in fields such as sport or music. We are home to the current champions of English Premier League football and the birthplace of The Beatles. This week, however, we have stood alone for a different reason.
Our region was the first area of the country to have the UK government’s new “tier 3” Covid-19 restrictions imposed. Table-topping in music and sport may be welcome, but it’s unenviable to top the league with the highest Covid-19 rates in the country.
Tier 3 restrictions, which are classed as a “very high” alert level and include a ban on households mixing indoors or out, as well as closures of pubs and bars unless they operate as restaurants, have been met with some backlash locally. Some people are asking why we didn’t simply say “no”.
The fact is that the situation in our region is so serious that we were given absolutely no option; we were told that we were going to be subject to the tightest rules in the country — no ifs, no buts.
It has been pointed out that infection rates in other places are also high, but the infection rate is not the only indicator and not the only factor the government takes into account.
Every area is experiencing different trends. Cases in our region are not confined to young people and are spreading among the over-60s at an alarming rate, while our hospitals are being stretched to their limits and could be overwhelmed in days. The City of Liverpool alone reportedly has the third-highest number of hospitalisations in Europe.
There is no single explanation for why cases have risen so quickly in our area. Easing lockdown too soon played a part. When the government began loosening lockdown back in May, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and I warned it was too soon for the North West and that cases here were still too high.
We have since seen worrying infection rates right across the north of England. On current trends, our region might be the first put into the highest tier of restrictions, but it won’t be the last.
There is some scepticism among public health professionals that even the new measures will not be enough to contain the virus. We now know the government’s own scientific advisers called for a national “circuit-breaker lockdown” weeks ago. In choosing to ignore the experts, the government has put lives in danger across the country. The risk of greater economic damage has increased, when decisive action, not dithering, was required.
In the past days, it has been suggested that the government is playing politics with our region and the wider north. This should be a time where we set aside political point scoring and focus all our energies on beating a deadly virus. I get the sense that the government is taking actions that spread division, right when we need to be united. Instead of working with us over the summer to devolve the power and resources that regions need to tackle the crisis in our areas, I’m worried that we have now entered the era of “devo blame”.
In spite of a decade of austerity that has left not just scars, but open wounds on our region, we have made great leaps forward. Before the pandemic struck, our city region had become an international destination of choice, with an especially strong tourist economy, employing more than 57,000 people and creating £5bn every year for our local economy.
It is this sector that risks being damaged most by the pandemic. The government’s new furlough-lite scheme falls far short of the support that thousands of local people need. If the 80 per cent level of wage support for furloughed workers was the right choice back in March, it is right today.
For our region to recover, we need an economy to come back to. We cannot simply sit around and wait for the chancellor to do the right thing. So we have stepped up to the plate to launch a £40m stopgap fund to help keep the region’s economy afloat, while we battle the Treasury for a comprehensive support package.
As our most famous foursome once sang, money can’t buy you love. But it can buy you time for economic recovery. Despite the challenges we have faced in the past few months, and those ahead, I am determined to help my region flourish.
The writer is the metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region