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20 October 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 11:04am

Andy Burnham, Mark Drakeford and Keir Starmer share a diagnosis – but differ on strategy

Facing new lockdown regulations the Labour politicians are critical of the UK government's wage support schemes.   

By Ailbhe Rea

It was announced yesterday that Wales is to enter a “short, sharp” national lockdown from Friday until 9 November, while Greater Manchester leaders have until midday to reach a deal with the UK government over moving into the highest level of English coronavirus restrictions. 

What do the two situations have in common, beyond the fact that they’re both being led by a devolved Labour leadership figure? On the face of it, Andy Burnham and Mark Drakeford are facing in different directions, the former resisting a higher level of restrictions without government support, and the latter introducing the tightest possible form of lockdown. But appearances on this one are deceiving: the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester and the Labour first minister of Wales are singing from the same hymn sheet as their national leader and as each other, raising the same concerns and sharing in the same fundamental analysis of the UK government’s problem.

Firstly, all three agree that a national, “short, sharp” lockdown is the correct approach at this stage of the virus. It is what Sage advised the UK government, it is what Keir Starmer called for last week, and it is what Drakeford is himself adopting for Wales, after the Welsh chief medical officer, chief scientific adviser and technical advisory group were “unanimous” in their advice to the Welsh government that this is necessary. It is also what Burnham wants to see: his opposition to an underfunded, regional approach is based on his shared belief that only a national lockdown, properly funded and with enough closures to genuinely turn the rate of cases around, is the sensible approach.

Wales’ adoption of a short firebreak means Labour nationally has a “control” group to measure the UK government’s tiered approach against. It also means that some of the trickier questions that Labour has faced about its promotion of a circuit break in England have been answered: Drakeford has been clear that he doesn’t expect cases to be decreasing by the 9 November, when the fire break ends (and he has given a hard guarantee that this is the end date, no matter what), but that the effect of the short lockdown should become clear in the two weeks after it is lifted. It means that the question, “but how can you guarantee that a ‘circuit break’ lockdown won’t have to be extended indefinitely?” has a clear, definitive answer.

Secondly, all three Labour figures point to the same criticism of the UK government’s financial package. Drakeford has announced a raft of grants and support for businesses to get through the lockdown, but has emphasised that wage support falls under the remit of the UK government. As it stands, the furlough scheme will end in the middle of the Welsh circuit break, meaning furloughed workers will be on two different consecutive support schemes during that short timeframe, moving from 80 per cent of their wages to two thirds, topped up by universal credit. The Welsh government hopes that the UK government will fix this, by making it just the one scheme, and, ideally, maintaining the 80 per cent level. 

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Burnham is highlighting the same fundamental problem. Since the negotiations about tier-three restrictions for Greater Manchester began, local leaders have been asking for greater support for businesses and the Exchequer has also offered more money to local authorities for enforcement purposes, but Burnham’s personal bottom line has been the rate of the local furlough. Why, he argues, should workers in certain regions go into yet another lockdown, but on two-thirds of their wages, rather than the 80 per cent offered last time? Between the five-week wait for Universal Credit and that fact that in many cases, benefits still won’t “top up” the furlough to a level sufficient to live off, it risks tipping many of Greater Manchester’s residents into instant destitution.

Ultimately, these different Labour figures in their different contexts are promoting the same analysis: that only a deep, national lockdown will reverse the exponential growth in cases; that you can’t do any sort of lockdown without generous grants for business; and that the fundamental policy error, as they see it, is the end of the furlough scheme on 31 October, and its replacement with something that tries to do the same job, but on the cheap.  

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