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14 January 2021

Red Wall Diary: How Covid-19 has newly exposed the north-south divide

Viewed from the north, England has always operated on a two-tier system. The government’s pandemic response has simply made this more visible.

By Katy Shaw

Less than two weeks into 2021, the new year is already starting to feel like one long pandemic Groundhog Day.

The Prime Minister’s opening gambit of another national lockdown was unpopular in the north of England, where the announcement coincided with the day that we finally drove our R number down to near 1. In November, the Top 50 Covid Chart featured only one place in the whole of the south of England (Bristol), and nowhere at all in London. By December, only two places in the whole of the north of England (Burnley and South Tyneside) featured, with 48 others all in the south.

In just four weeks the pandemic had completely flipped the north-south divide. But how?

Covid-19 hit the north of England first. Although the capital suffered an early peak in April, it was the towns and cities of the north that formed a Red Wall of higher than average death rates (14 per cent above, in fact). This was reflected in harsher rules: for most of the latter half of 2020, large areas of the south remained open for business under tier one or two conditions, while most of the north was subject to tougher restrictions. This was bad news for northern businesses, but it meant that case rates were slowly suppressed.

[See also: The UK has the highest current Covid-19 death rate of any major country]

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That success at driving down cases has not been compensated. Boris Johnson’s experimental regional lockdown strategy promised reward and incentive for regional sacrifice, but the result has instead been blanket lockdowns. Flip-flopping between an escalating tier system and nation-level closures has left many Red Wall voters feeling like their earlier efforts have been forgotten and their futures jeopardised further.

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Johnson won a landslide majority a year ago with the promise of levelling up north and south of England. But jobs and businesses in the very Red Wall seats he won over with this pledge stand to be hit hardest by the pandemic.

A recent Office for National Statistics report identifies northern England as having the highest share of jobs in “at risk” sectors, as a combined result of Brexit and the legacies of the pandemic. And there is a feeling that this risk is not being prioritised in Westminster. The recently formed Northern Research Group, led by former Johnson ally Jake Berry, has described restrictions on the north as “London-centric” and “the manacles of state control”.

For anyone on the wrong side of the north-south divide, double standards are nothing new. Viewed from the north, England has always operated on a two-tiered system, which the Covid-19 response structure has simply made visible – one rule for us, another for them. Lockdown three is just the latest evidence that levelling-up promises will not be fulfilled. When case numbers are high in the north but low in London, the capital enjoys freedom while the north is put under tougher rules. When the reverse is true, the entire country is put under lockdown.

The prospect of new vaccines offered something to hope for during the “like it or lump it” lockdown three, but once more, centralisation has proved the enemy of effectiveness. The first weeks of rollout were blighted by problems surrounding the distribution of the Pfizer vaccine. The poor organisation and communication that have characterised the vaccine distribution to English regions has been nothing short of a farce. There are reports of GPs still waiting for supplies to arrive, while some NHS Trusts struggled to use the quantities of the vaccine that had been quickly delivered, and others found that vials actually contained six, not five, doses in practice, but were then unable to officially use the extra dose until government paperwork gave approval – seven days after the expiry dates.

In Birmingham, England’s second city and home to a million residents, two weeks into rollout medics were still claiming that no one knew when vaccine supplies were expected in the city, or who was even in charge of the vaccination programme there (or indeed anywhere else). New vaccinations hubs in seven cities will hopefully streamline delivery, but in keeping with Covid communications to date, the government vaccine programme has been tackled with all of the curation and coordination of the middle aisle in Aldi.

The government’s one-size-fits-all approach to tackling Covid-19 also conveniently ignores the fact that the country was not on a level playing field at the start of the pandemic. As such, misguided and absurd policies that affect the whole country have particularly hit regions that were already struggling.

A special commendation for consistent ineptitude is due to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson. Thanks to his abject incompetence, teachers, students and parents suffered the most stressful return to school in living memory.

[See also: An urgent action plan to mitigate the damage of school closures]

At first, thousands of Covid lateral flow kits were left to sit dormant in university testing centres, mothballed due to the ban on students returning to campus, while school teachers were asked to return to the classroom without any testing at all. Exposing millions of staff and pupils to cross-mixing for just one day in class, the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary ordered the biggest bursting of carefully contained Covid bubbles since the start of the pandemic. They then announced school closures at 8pm the same day, having risked the physical and mental health of both the nation’s teachers and the next generation of voters. That day our students were taught an important lesson, and one that might be their last face to face instruction for a while: never vote Tory.

Since that stunning U-turn, again the support offered to the most disadvantaged has been paltry. Schools that were promised hundreds of laptops to enable home-learning received none, while some of the most vulnerable children were sent “hampers” in lieu of £30 meal vouchers containing just £5 worth of food – including dry pasta, two raw potatoes and some malt loaf – to sustain them through ten days when they would have received free school meals. The hardest hit families, sold the “levelling up” promise in December 2019, have once again been let down.

Things have never felt less level and more divided in the north than they do at the start of 2021. And if the Conservatives think they can count on these seats in the next election, they are in for a shock – the Red Wall looks likely to become the main battleground for the future of the United Kingdom.

The threat to northern Tories doesn’t just come from Labour. The SNP is rumoured to be considering standing candidates in the north of England, and thanks to clear and decisive messaging throughout the pandemic – so lacking from the English government – Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity south of the border is at an all-time high. This year’s mayoral and local elections are therefore more significant than ever, not just because of the huge number of seats up for grabs, but as the starting gun for the fight for the Union.

This battle will centre on the English regions, and particularly on the mayoral power exercised during the pandemic by key players like Andy Burnham in Manchester and Dan Jarvis in Sheffield. And perhaps here lies the answer to our increasingly fractured United Kingdom. Devolution to the regions offers the only viable future for a progressive alliance of the four nations, with Westminster loosening its grip. After all, while Covid-19 has made visible the fault lines that run between our nations, it has also made us realise that challenges like pandemics are better tackled together.

At the time of writing snow is falling, evenly, across the Red Wall, and down to the south. A new more even and equal vision of society – and of the Union – could be one of the few good things to emerge from the trauma of the pandemic. That and Eat Out To Help Out 2.0. Roll on summer 2021.