Andy Burnham today accused Boris Johnson of ‘exaggerating’ the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Greater Manchester as Michael Gove said the mayor was ‘posturing’ and must accept the region moving into Tier Three restrictions.
Mr Johnson said in a Downing Street press conference on Friday that ‘time is of the essence’ and the situation is ‘grave’ as he warned ‘cases doubled in the last nine days’.
But Mr Burnham, who is refusing to accept new rules unless ministers bring forward a more generous package of financial support, said this morning that ‘figures have been falling in Manchester itself in the last few days’.
Expert analysis published by the Sunday Telegraph suggested cases in Manchester have now decreased for nine days in a row.
Meanwhile, statistics published by Manchester City Council for the period between October 4-10 showed there were 2,484 people with a newly confirmed diagnosis of Covid-19, giving an infection rate of 449.3 per 100,000 people.
However, in the previous seven day period there were 3,224 people with a newly confirmed diagnosis, giving an infection rate of 583.2 per 100,000.
The numbers suggest that cases have also been falling in the wider Greater Manchester region and not just in the city itself.
On October 12 there were an average of 1,563 new cases confirmed per day over the preceding seven days in the region.
But by Thursday October 15 the average had dropped to 1,076 new cases confirmed per day.
Mr Burnham remains in a tense stand off with the Government and Mr Gove claimed this morning that the mayor was guilty of ‘indulging’ in ‘political positioning’ as he urged the Labour chief to back down.
But Mr Burnham dismissed accusations of ‘playing politics’ as he called for an end to the ‘war of words’ but also left the door open to a legal challenge if ministers decide to impose the measures without his agreement.
Boris Johnson on Friday urged Mr Burnham to work with the Government but also said he retained the right to unilaterally intervene if necessary.
A move to Tier Three would see pubs and bars told to close and a strict ban on households mixing indoors.
Mr Gove stressed this morning that ministers do want to work with Mr Burnham as he warned of the consequences of a failure to act swiftly.
He told Sky News: ‘I want to reach an agreement with the political leadership in Greater Manchester.
‘I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they have indulged in and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS because an absence of action will mean… more people get infected.
‘As more people get infected that will place more pressure on the NHS and the more people sadly in intensive care beds in the North West and in Manchester who are suffering from coronavirus, the fewer intensive care beds are there for people with other serious conditions.
‘All of this is happening as we move closer to the winter and instead of press conferences and posturing what we need is action to save people’s lives.’
Labour has called for a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown but Mr Gove today categorically ruled out a shift to such a crackdown in the immediate future.
He said: ‘It would seem to me to be an error to try to impose on every part of the country the same level of restriction when we know that the disease is spreading more intensively and quicker in some parts of the country.
‘The nature of the epidemiology… is different in this wave than it was earlier in the year.’
He added: ‘We always look at how the disease spreads and we will take whatever steps are necessary to maintain public health but… the Labour Party are arguing for blanket restrictions across the country at the moment and the spread and the nature of the disease does not merit that approach at the moment.’
Mr Burnham later rejected Mr Gove’s accusation that he was ‘playing politics’ as he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘This is all about the health of the people of Greater Manchester.
‘We were the first in the country… to accept local restrictions and that was three months ago so to those who say we are playing politics I would point them to that which proves we are not doing that.
‘The truth is health, protecting health, is about more than controlling the virus.
‘We have been under those restrictions for three months and people’s mental health now is pretty low, people are worrying about their jobs, their kids, their homes, their businesses.
‘This isn’t about politics or about money, this is about people.’
He added: ‘What I would say to the Government is let’s come together and agree a package of support that helps people through this and a punishing lockdown without support, trapping places in Tier Three all winter will cause real harm to health in the broadest possible sense.’
Mr Burnham claimed Mr Johnson had painted an inaccurate picture of the situation in Manchester at a Downing Street press conference on Friday afternoon.
The Mayor said: ‘I checked the figures this morning, there are currently around 62 people in intensive care in Greater Manchester, give or take.
‘Back in April it was over 200, around 220, so we are in a different position. There were four hospital admissions of people with Covid at hospitals in Greater Manchester yesterday.
‘So it is a serious situation but I don’t think it was the situation that was described by the Prime Minister on Friday evening.’
He added: ‘I think it was an exaggeration of the position that we are in. As I have just said, of course it is a matter of concern and we watch the figures very closely indeed but the figures have been falling in Manchester itself for the last few days.
‘Across Greater Manchester, up slightly but certainly not doubling every nine days so let’s be careful here.
‘I would certainly say this morning let’s step back a little bit from the war of words.’
The Government is offering to pay two thirds of the wages of workers who are affected by Tier Three local lockdown restrictions but Mr Burnham wants the level of support to be set at 80 per cent as it was under the old furlough scheme.
Asked if he was still considering launching a legal challenge against the Government, he said: ‘I would do anything to protect low paid workers who I think now are very, very close to the edge and I don’t think they can survive on two thirds wages.
‘The legal challenge applies to that. I think it is discriminatory on people in the lowest paid professions to say you can have a two thirds furlough but we paid an 80 per cent furlough for people on middle incomes earlier in the year. I do not think that is fair.’