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27 November 2020

Notebook: How the north is rising against Boris Johnson

Anger is growing behind the Red Wall about the imposition of tier-three coronavirus restrictions.  

By Katy Shaw

This year the Tories chose to mark American Thanksgiving with a new gift to the English nation: the tiers of a clown. As a postcode tier checker website crashed under the apparently “unexpected” weight of public demand, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock stood up in parliament with all the assurance of a failed gameshow host. In his speech outlining the new tier system – a long list of seemingly random place names and numbers – the only Brucie Bonus came for London, as the densely populated capital city was told it now has the same risk level as the remote and underpopulated Lake District. It seems as if nearly everyone and everywhere else upwards of Birmingham has been left languishing in the “Must Try Harder” tier three, making Boris Johnson truly the grinch that stole a northern Christmas.

[see also: Leader: The revolt of the north]

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The long-standing north-south divide has been both illuminated and exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. While government are keen to remind northerners that we are “all in this together”, the reality is that “levelling up in lockdown” has proven in practice the ultimate oxymoron. Covid has hit the north of England hardest, and its effects are likely to last longest beyond the Red Wall. New research by the Northern Health Science Alliance suggests that northern cities – including Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle – are all way above the English average for Covid-related death and unemployment rates. While mayoral “Kings of the North” (every current metro mayor is a white middle-aged man) fought hard for local deals, the swift onset of Lockdown 2 made these squabbles and settlements seem in hindsight like a waste of time. The UK will emerge from the pandemic period more fragmented, both regionally and nationally, than ever before. In standing up to central government, the metro mayors have demonstrated their power and potential to better represent the 56 million Brits who live beyond the M25 – and have begun to rebuild Labour’s Red Wall, brick by brick.

[see also: Labour is falling short in the seats where it matters most – the Red Wall]

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This year, driving home for Christmas is not just the preserve of singer Chris Rea. For many students, heading back for the holidays has become a challenge reminiscent of TV quiz show The Crystal Maze, with automatic lock-in for those failing to pass the dreaded lateral flow Covid test. Student testing has placed enormous demands upon a university sector already exhausted by churning out PPE, initiating vaccine trials, coping with an A-levels crisis, tackling outbreaks on campus and delivering care packages to thousands of students isolating in halls of residence. While everyone welcomed the move to make the return home for the holidays safe, the news that the government would offer no staff or space to facilitate the operation was less popular.

Called upon again by a government on the back foot, university staff across the country have risen to the challenge, however. After a year of relentless delivery, albeit minus the claps, it is worth remembering that teachers of all levels have worked throughout the pandemic. As a society, we cannot forget the efforts of key workers this year and should expect the Chancellor to reward their work with more than a Scrooge-like pay freeze.

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The pandemic has brought to our attention many things that we had come to take for granted, especially the social significance of the arts and culture. This month, with most of 2020 now firmly behind us, thoughts are turning to tier-compliant festive fun in the shape of drive-in performances, socially distanced theatre, and online shows. The ability of pantomime in particular to adapt and endure is a serious matter: the genre is not only a mainstay of British popular culture, but it is also the first (and sometimes only) experience that many children have of live theatre. If we want to ensure that creative diversity and the vitality of our cultural industries endure for the next generation, we need to get out and support Wicked Witches and Widow Twankeys. By offering vital entertainment and relief, the arts have connected communities, given us shared experiences and got us through this year. In the pandemic’s wake, we cannot simply put culture on mute. We must protect the “value” – economic, social and political – of the arts and cultural industries in the post-Brexit months ahead.

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Covid is the viral equivalent of glitter – it gets everywhere. And as we progress deeper into our advent calendars, it is impossible to ignore the reality that the daily Cadbury Countdown carries with it quite a lot of pressure. Some people have had their festive decorations and Christmas trees on display since mid-November, while others have spent much of the year striking off the days until the year’s end. Rather than festive fatigue, this intense focus on the Christmas period has led to a baubled-blinded optimism in the power of the holiday to make good all the ills of 2020. The faith that we will wake up on 1 January to a changed world is as much incredibly British as it is a coping mechanism for facing the spectre of a much-anticipated new year.

Next year has a lot to live up to, and for many people this could be their first New Year’s Eve away from loved ones. But for New Year naysayers, the prospect of spending 31 December in lockdown is sweet relief. And perhaps, after all, they have a point: in the midst of tier trauma who needs the pressure of enforced fun? Ending Christmas home alone, surrounded by gifts of “you’re on mute” T-shirts, family packs of toilet roll and ripped Amazon boxes, seems like an apt end to 2020. Bring on the Hootenanny, an early night and a fresh start.