Confusion has been cast over talks between Downing Street and Greater Manchester’s leaders over lockdown restrictions after the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, denied No 10’s claim that a meeting had been arranged to attempt to end the row.
Downing Street said a call between the two sides had been scheduled for Sunday morning. But the office for Burnham, who is resisting the highest level of controls without more financial support for workers and businesses, flatly denied a call had been scheduled.
The confusion came as the chief constable of Greater Manchester police responded to claims his force would not adequately enforce tier 3 lockdown restrictions.
On Saturday, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page story claiming that Boris Johnson was holding back from imposing harsher restrictions on Manchester due to fears police would not properly enforce them without the backing of their mayor.
In an open letter, Ian Hopkins said: “I wish to clarify that as the chief constable of [GMP] I am accountable to the mayor of Greater Manchester and responsible to the people of Greater Manchester, critically I am operationally independent.
“It is for local and national politicians to agree the necessary restrictions to keep us all safe. As the chief constable I will then ensure my officers and staff enforce these in a proportionate manner alongside our local authority partners.”
Deputy mayors and other civic leaders in the metropolitan region said in a joint statement on Friday they were “ready to meet at any time” with the prime minister to agree a way forward over the introduction of a tier 3 lockdown. They say the government’s initial proposals did not provide adequate financial support.
Downing Street officials are said to have assured local leaders further talks would take place on Friday to respond to their concerns. However, No 10 “did not pick up the phone”, according to Kate Green, the Labour MP for the Greater Manchester constituency of Stretford and Urmston.
She said Downing Street must urgently strike a deal with Greater Manchester leaders to introduce tougher Covid restrictions before hospitals are overwhelmed.
“I’m really, really alarmed. I think that every day we’re delaying taking action is a day wasted, but we have to have the financial support, the package of measures, to enable people to close their businesses, to isolate at home if necessary, if additional restrictions are to work,” Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“What we need is to get everybody round the table as a matter of desperate urgency now. The situation here is very, very grave. Our infection rate is rising very sharply and our hospitals could be overwhelmed very quickly if action isn’t taken.”
During Friday’s Downing Street press conference, Johnson attempted to strong-arm Greater Manchester into accepting tougher Covid restrictions, without providing extra money to protect businesses, by claiming that every day of delay would mean “more people will die”.
Green agreed that lives were being put at risk due to the stalemate, but said a resolution must be found by “stopping the blame game”.
On Friday Johnson also dismissed the idea of a two-week national “circuit breaker” lockdown to help bring down infection, which had been recommended to the government by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and other experts.
On Saturday, the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed support for a circuit breaker and called for an end to the public war of words over local restrictions.
He told the Today programme: “I’ve always thought that it’s better to do things quickly and decisively than to wait until the virus has grown, so I have a lot of sympathy with that.
“But I think more important right now is we stop this public war of words between local leaders and national leaders because in a pandemic the most important thing is a consistent message because you really have to have compliance with the very, very important public health messages about social distancing.
“And if local leaders and national leaders are saying different things, it’s incredibly damaging.”
The government adviser, Sir John Bell, the regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, also said a circuit breaker may be necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
Bell told Today: “I can see very little way of getting on top of this without some kind of circuit-breaker because the numbers are actually pretty eye-watering in some bits of the country and I think it’s going to be very hard to get on top of this just biting around the edges.”
Bell also said it would be “possible” for the UK to carry out 1m coronavirus tests a day by Christmas, addressing a report in the Times citing the predictions of unnamed scientists. But he explained that there would be significant logistical challenges and that “setting these targets is sometimes not that helpful”.