Boris Johnson was hit by a growing revolt over his strategy for easing the Covid-19 lockdown last night as council leaders across the north of England joined unions in vowing to resist plans to reopen schools on 1 June.
Signs of disunity spread as a new opinion poll for the Observer showed approval ratings for the government over its handling of the crisis had plummeted since the prime minister dropped the “stay at home” message and eased restrictions a week ago.
In a further sign of discord, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, writing in today’s Observer, says no one thought to tell the leaders of the biggest towns and cities outside London in advance of the prime minister’s decision to encourage people to go back to work last Monday.
“In Greater Manchester, we had no real notice of the measures. 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 who’d have to cope with that.”
Pointing the finger at Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, the mayor adds: “Far from a planned, safety-led approach, this looked like another exercise in Cummings’s chaos theory.”
In his article, Burnham says mayors outside London should be invited onto the Cobra emergency committee, to counter what he says is a “London-centric” approach.
After Liverpool city council wrote last week to parents, saying it was unlikely to reopen schools on 1 June, Hartlepool council followed suit yesterday, saying it would not do so either. Newcastle and Gateshead councils have refused to adopt the government’s new “stay alert” message, and are telling residents to “stay at home”. Manchester is also stressing the stay-home message.
The leader of Gateshead council, Martin Gannon, told the Observer that his authority would put the safety of local people first in an area with one of the highest infection rates in the UK. “There are pockets of deprivation in this area where people are especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Life expectancy here is two years below the national average.”
He went on: “We locked down too late; this unlockdown strategy is premature. The testing capacity isn’t robust enough, neither is the tracking and tracing system, the R-rate [the virus’s reproduction rate] isn’t low enough. They’re doing this too soon; it means a second wave will happen.”
Gannon said he had been told by his public health director that the R-rate in Gateshead was around 1.1 – above the level at which exponential spread takes place.
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows that approval for the government over its handling of the pandemic has plummeted by nine points in the last week.
Whereas net approval of its performance – the figure reached when the percentage who disapprove is subtracted from percentage who approve – stood at +42% on 26 March, it has now fallen to -3%.
For the first time since Opinium began tracking views on the pandemic in March, more people disapprove of the government’s handling than approve. Only 44% think the new “stay alert” message is clear. Some 56% say they are not clear who they can meet outside their household.
Yesterday, the number of people who have died from coronavirus in all settings in the UK rose by 468 to a total of 34,466. A further 3,451 people tested positive for the virus. The number of people tested for Covid-19 rose to its highest daily total of 136,486.
Controversy over schools reopening has intensified because of a lack of clear scientific evidence. Only a handful of studies have been carried out worldwide on Covid-19’s impact on children, and scientists disagree about their interpretation.
Studies from Italy, Iceland and South Korea suggest there are low rates of infectivity among under-10s compared with adults. However, the UK’s Office for National Statistics contradicted this last week: a survey of 10,000 people showed children were just as likely as adults to be infected with Covid-19, it reported.
On the other hand, an Australian study – reported in Nature – has revealed children are rarely the first person to bring a Covid-19 infection into a home. That finding was countered by German researchers who have found amounts of virus carried by infected individuals are not significantly different between age groups.
Yesterday, after the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, led the daily Covid-19 briefing, Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said he could not yet back the government.
“The government says its evidence indicates circumstances should be improved enough to safely admit more pupils from 1 June. However, if their tests haven’t been met, the government must follow through on its statement that wider school reopening will be paused,” he said.
Burnham writes, unless the government listens more to council leaders outside the south-east, the revolt against his plans will grow. “If the Government carries on in the same vein, expect to see an even greater fracturing of national unity,” he says.
“Different places will adopt their own messaging and policies,” he says. “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.
“If we don’t get the help we need, there’s a risk of a second spike here which will pass the infection back down the country through the Midlands to London. I’m not sure this is the kind of ‘levelling-up’ the government has in mind.”