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‘The land that time forgot’: months of lockdown grate in northern England

Donna Burrell sits in her darkened restaurant. There are no customers today and there will be none for the rest of the week.

Normally, Salotto, the Italian restaurant which sits at the heart of her thriving co-operative business in Bolton that also houses a bridal boutique and furniture store, would be a hive of activity. There would be the sounds of chatting, the hum of the espresso machine and the clinking of champagne glasses as brides celebrated buying their dream dress. But this Thursday afternoon there is just silence.

It’s the same in Rosalyn Wilde’s home in Trafford, and James Murgatroyd’s home in Bradford. And it’s been this way for nearly all of the past six months.

While much of the country has enjoyed a return to some semblance of normality this summer, with the strictest coronavirus restrictions lifted, swathes of northern England have had just a few weeks’ respite from curbs.

These northern boroughs and towns came out of lockdown with the rest of the country on 4 July, but just weeks later had local measures introduced preventing them from – to differing degrees – seeing family, opening businesses and visiting pubs or restaurants.

Months after these measures were imposed, a Guardian analysis on Thursday underlined figures showing what many already suspected: local lockdowns, designed to bring Covid under control, are not working.

Now, as we creep towards winter, there is an overwhelming feeling in these areas of having been forgotten, of “lockdown prejudice”, being left under restrictions when others have enjoyed the little freedom the country may experience this year.

And some infuriated residents and politicians vent anger at a widening north-south divide – a suspicion that if stricter curbs applied to the capital and southern England, there would be more urgency and more anger over the limits on their daily lives.

Murgatroyd, a proud Bradfordian whose daughter has a chronic health condition, says he has taken the virus seriously since day one, but has begun to despair at the government’s approach.

And he predicts ministers’ fractured and, in his view, culturally insensitive attempt to stem the virus with “knee-jerk” local restrictions means that tensions will pervade for years to come.

He says: “Much has been made of the BAME communities being responsible for the spread of the virus, and when they brought in restrictions on the eve of Eid they showed a complete lack of understanding of what the situation was on a local level … I see large numbers of white people of all ages walking around shops with no mask yet Pakistanis were being blamed for spreading the virus.

“This is just one example of the damage that has been done by local lockdowns. This could have been avoided with a national approach but what we have now is communities being left to languish in never-ending local lockdowns, almost with the sense that they have been punished.”

He speaks as it emerges that the SNP MP Margaret Ferrier flouted coronavirus rules by taking a train from London to Scotland after testing positive for Covid-19, hot on the heels of rule-breaking by the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley.

“The more that MPs and advisers are seen breaking the rules without consequences then people will think, ‘Why should I bother?’ I can only see it getting worse over winter,” Murgatroyd says.

Speaking from her terraced home doubling as an office, Rosalyn Wilde, a construction bid manager, is also frustrated. She has not seen her elderly grandparents all year. Her daughter, Emmeline, learned to walk during lockdown, with her close family missing the milestone.

Wilde, 38, lives in Trafford, which was brought under heightened restrictions at the end of July. In early September, there was a chink of light as ministers said measures banning different households meeting indoors or in private gardens would be lifted.

But the move prompted local council bosses to ask for restrictions to remain, a day before they were due to be lifted, amid concerns that the coronavirus rates were still too high. They have stayed in place ever since.

Wilde and her husband, Tom, head of a charitable foundation at a housing trust, have been mainly supportive of lockdown measures, sticking to the rules religiously, but they have begun to take their toll.

“If, say, London was under lockdown, parliament would be talking about it more. I feel like when the prime minister has his briefings he wouldn’t just ignore the fact that London was under different rules to the rest of the country,” she says.

Sweeping her hand upwards and sighing, she adds: “These places up in the north that are under these rules – it’s easy to forget about them. The fact that we have been living with these local restrictions for a long, long time hasn’t been mentioned. They’ve just thought, ‘We’ll slap that rule on you and then we’ll just forget about it for a while.’”

There is cross-party agreement in the north about the “sheer unfairness” of the lockdown rules. David Greenhalgh, the council leader in Bolton, said government handling was “breeding resentment”. The Conservative Bolton West MP, Chris Green, wrote an open letter to the health secretary this week, pleading with him to bring the borough’s measures in line with the rest of Greater Manchester as cases continue to fall.

Labour’s Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, described the situation as “indefensible”, with the country heading towards the most difficult winter it had ever known.

“The whole approach has been too centralised, too driven from rooms within Whitehall without any recognition about what this means for people on the ground and how it affects our communities,” Burnham said.

“There is this lack of consistency that is making people lose faith. The sense of injustice is very real today. You can’t have this situation where you introduce restrictions and forget about places with your attention wandering off somewhere else.”

Burnham said: “If we go into a winter with the north under local restrictions – millions of people under restrictions – we are going to see a widening of the north-south divide. This is a real danger that is staring us right in the face.”

Back in the Bolton suburb of Astley Bridge on Thursday, Donna Burrell is celebrating. A notification on her phone alerts her to a speech by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announcing that Bolton’s lockdown restrictions will be aligned with the rest of Greater Manchester.

Twenty-three days earlier, extra restrictions had been imposed, with restaurants, bars and pubs told to close to visitors due to a rise in coronavirus cases, with the government insisting – as it has throughout – that these are necessary, if painful, steps designed to save lives.

Since then, the restaurant in Burrell’s co-operative has been closed and, despite virus rates in other boroughs rising higher than Bolton’s, no area in the country had been subjected to the same measures.

Burrell, who started a petition signed by 3,000 people pleading with the government to lift the restrictions, says the decision by ministers has cost her business £50,000 – but she is one of the lucky ones. Others in the area’s hospitality industry have been forced to close.

The 50-year-old from nearby Darwen is incensed. “We are all celebrating now but in these 23 days that we have been closed there are going to be businesses that cannot reopen,” she says.

“Every night I drove home, I would see all of Bolton’s pubs and restaurants closed and within half a mile all of Darwen’s pubs and restaurants open and everyone in Bolton going to other towns. The amount of money that has leaked out of Bolton is phenomenal.”

There is joy and relief at Hancock’s decision. Following the announcement, watched by all the staff on Burrell’s phone, the lights are switched on immediately and restaurant staff are told to return. But there is a lingering resentment in the room. “We were definitely forgotten,” says Burrell. “I can’t understand and will never understand the local lockdown decisions.”

Burrell argues that the decision to close Bolton’s hospitality industry allowed the virus to spread to neighbouring boroughs, with the public traveling a few miles to places with fewer restrictions to eat out and shop.

“It made no sense and nobody has ever explained it to us. We have watched 26 other boroughs’ infection rates up and down the UK go higher and higher but yet no similar restrictions. The silence from Westminster these past few weeks has been deafening,” she says. “We are occupying the land that time forgot.”

Source:

www.theguardian.com

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