'Too soon for the North?' - Boris Johnson warned of damaging 'national unity' if he ignores North East fears over coronavirus

Boris Johnson has been warned he risks a "fracturing of national unity" if he ignores concerns of the North East in the coronavirus outbreak.
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North East councils have expressed concerns over the easing of lockdown restrictions, with Hartlepool going as far as to rule out schools returning from June 1.

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Now Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, a former Labour Minister, has warned the Prime Minister he must take heed of concerns in the North East and other regions.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Picture c/o Danny Lawson/PA WireAndy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Picture c/o Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester. Picture c/o Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Mr Burnham said the Prime Minister had failed to inform civic leaders of his easing of the lockdown restrictions in advance - even though they were the ones who had to deal with demands on the transport system.

While the announcement came as cases of the disease were falling in the South East, Mr Burnham said that he believed it had come too soon for the North.

Writing in The Observer today, he warned that without additional support for the regions, there was a danger of a "second spike" in the disease which could in turn pass back through the Midlands to London.

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His intervention comes amid growing signs of unhappiness with Mr Johnson's handling of the crisis in other parts of the country.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have refused to follow Mr Johnson's easing plan, while cities such as Liverpool have said they will not start re-opening schools next month as the Government wants.

Mr Burnham said that despite having taken part in a call two weeks ago with Mr Johnson and eight other regional mayors, he was given no real notice of the measures announced last Sunday.

"On the eve of a new working week, the PM was on TV 'actively encouraging' a return to work. Even though that would clearly put more cars on roads and people on trams, no one in Government thought it important to tell the cities that would have to cope with that," he said.

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Mr Burnham said the lack of notice was not the only issue Greater Manchester had to deal with.

"The surprisingly permissive package might well be right for the South East, given the fall in cases there. But my gut feeling told me it was too soon for the North," he said.

"Certainly, the abrupt dropping of the clear 'stay at home' message felt premature.”

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he added: "People do not have the R information at the moment. They can get it, but it's not formally published by the government.

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"There's a very different picture in the north, particularly in the north east, where the R is the highest, so I can understand concerns [about lifting lockdown measures].

"Let's get back around the table, look at the evidence and have some flexibility in terms of how [children] return to school because it will be different for different places."

He suggested Mr Johnson's controversial chief adviser Dominic Cummings may have been to blame, saying it appeared to be "another exercise in Cummings chaos theory".

To prevent further divisions, he urged Mr Johnson to appoint West Midlands mayor Andy Street to represent the English regions on the Government's Cobra civil contingencies committee.

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"If the Government carries on in the same vein, expect to see an even greater fracturing of national unity. Different places will adopt their own messaging and policies," he said.

"Nervousness in the north about the R number will see more councils adopt their own approach on schools, as Liverpool, Gateshead and Hartlepool are doing. Arguments will increase about funding.

"And if we don't get the help we need, there is a risk of a second spike here which, in turn, will pass the infection back down the country through the Midlands to London."

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