England & Wales Covid-19

Three tier system: deja vu or a new dawn?

Janet Sillett breaks down the new three tier Covid-19 alert system after the prime minister’s recent announcement and the consequent implications for local governments.

The Prime Minister, in announcing the new three tier Covid-19 alert levels, said he wanted to “simplify and standardise” rules.

Will the new system live up to these ambitions? It is fair to say that it does seem much easier to understand and, hopefully, to implement, than the current ‘system’ (which can’t really be called anything as rational as a system). Of course, there will remain some inconsistencies within and between areas – that is inevitable – but the framework is at least coherent.

It is clear, though, how we got here: the sudden very serious spike in infections, the growing confusion over the plethora of different local measures, the loss of thousands of test results, the backlash from some of the public about mixed messages and supposed inconsistencies, and the growing tensions between local leaders in parts of the North of England and the UK Government. Four different sets of restrictions in Greater Manchester was never going to work. The position was unsustainable.

But for the system to begin to make sense, it requires a much healthier relationship between local and central government. We have documented for months the fragilities in that relationship – and argued that the main problem has been excessive centralisation: which reached its nadir with the failings of the national test and trace system. Behind that was the government’s refusal to use the expertise and knowledge of councils and local public health teams and their determination to press on with a system that was clearly not fit for purpose. Local government leaders and elected mayors have never been fully involved or consulted about new measures in their areas and there have been a multitude of difficulties over local areas getting current and detailed local data.

So has that all now changed? What does feel somewhat different is the inclusion of council leaders and elected mayors in seemingly genuine discussions over the government’s proposals for the new three tier system and how it will play out in their areas. There has been a shift in tone but it all came about very late in the day and wasn’t consistent. Some leaders have said they were still getting news about their areas from the media. A number of MPs and local politicians claimed they were left out of meetings about the new system or given just minutes’ notice.

The (prolonged) negotiations with councils in the North-East and Yorkshire and Humberside about what tier those areas should be put in, and on what terms, are a step forward, but the underlying message from Boris Johnson was clear – the government wants consensus but if local leaders do not accept their areas being in the very high-level tier, and that is what the government considers necessary, it will be imposed: “If we can’t get agreement, then clearly it is the duty of national government to take the necessary action to protect the public and public health and we will.”

In Greater Manchester, the government conceded that the area should be in tier 2, but the debate is clearly ongoing – Andy Burnham has made it very clear that local leaders need the evidence that backs up specific measures and which shows that they will produce a material difference in the spread of infection, and crucially that councils need an effective financial package.

The mayor of Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, told Channel 4 that it was “disingenuous” to suggest Merseyside’s leaders were behind the decision to introduce tougher restrictions – “There was no choice with the tier that we were going into and the restrictions that we were therefore placed under.”

There is obviously some way to go in establishing trust between the centre and localities. According to The Guardian, Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, expressed anger about the tier 2 restrictions in his region – “This is not something regional leaders supported, nor what I believed would be happening following extensive conversations over recent days. The region was united, cross-party, in supporting the existing restrictions… this is something the latest local epidemiology does not support, and I am disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with this despite the united view of local leaders.”

These decisions are not easy – and there is not always consensus at the local level either. It is no surprise that the government’s attempts to include local leaders has been met with some scepticism, considering their extremely poor record in doing so previously.

What is needed for local areas to be able to lead effectively in managing the rise in infections? There are some basic requirements spelt out by local authorities: an effective test and trace system, without which these new measures can’t work; much clearer messaging; proper consultation and real collaboration between localities and the centre. Test and trace can probably no longer be transformed into a fully local system, but it needs to shift now to a system in which local government can take the lead. That requires resources and greater powers at the local level for enforcement.

This seems to have been accepted by the government in the emergency package for those areas in tier 3 (very high alert). Though whether the additional money will be enough is, as usual, debatable. And there is the question of whether those areas that are not yet in tier 3 but are close, will have enough resources to try and prevent the rapid rise in infections that has taken place elsewhere. The government seems almost to be incentivising councils to accept their area being placed in the highest level of alert by promising the cash to go with it.

This pandemic is far from over – the leaders and mayors of the Liverpool region are surely right to link the need for financial packages to the longer-term issues of local government’s financial situation. And to highlight the huge economic pressures on areas that were already under enormous strain. Individual workers in areas hit by further closures are not going to be helped beyond the new furlough measures announced last week by the Chancellor – and for some that will be not nearly enough support.

Then there is the issue of trust, less concrete, but just as crucial. The government needs to start to trust local authorities and public health teams and to do so explicitly. Maybe part of that has to be some acknowledgement that the government has not delivered on its promises in key areas, particularly testing and tracing.

This issue was analysed in a recent report by the C-19 National Foresight Group.

A rapid initial review was commissioned to explore communications on Covid-19 with the public. One of their conclusions was that the local resilience forums and local response do not feel understood or trusted by central government and ministers and “the lack of trust in the local structures from ministers and government departments and representatives…impacts on their ability to feel included as part of a greater UK wide management of the pandemic” which “undermines any building of integrity and trust in the local as they are the public face of the government approach at local level”.

Andy Burnham made a more direct comment on lack of trust to The Guardian:

“We have a bizarre system of government in this country, don’t we? A remote, London-centric operation that doesn’t trust local government, doesn’t invest in it, doesn’t believe in it.”

The next period is going to be very hard – for central government(s), local government, local people and businesses. The UK government’s recent record has definitely eroded the trust of some of the public in their handling of the pandemic. Even if the new system is clearer it might not seem that fair to some residents in parts of the North of England that are in the areas with the strictest rules, especially those who have already had additional measures for a long time. The public and local leaders will need to trust that there is a genuine exit strategy for their areas to come out of more restrictive measures. And even within a region or city, there will be those who resent tighter rules – especially hospitality businesses. The fall out will land on local authorities who are also having to deal with growing financial pressures and the uncertainties about the end of the withdrawal agreement with the EU. Respect from central government is the least that they deserve.

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