The North-South divide has widened again.
By Tilly Salisbury
Photography by Hasadri Freeman
The North has become the target of the second wave of coronavirus; containing all but one of the top twenty hotspots. With rates still rising, Boris Johnson signed off a new three-tiered lockdown system that immediately placed many Northern towns and cities into the highest tiers, with the toughest restrictions. Liverpool had to close pubs, bars, and gyms, with Manchester and South Yorkshire having to follow at the end of the week. Thousands of businesses, jobs, and lives are at risk under a disorganised plan that has been met with significant backlash across the North, with residents feeling, quite rightly, mistreated by the Tory government. It’s becoming clear that this will seek to not only maintain but strengthen England’s North-South divide. But what did we expect from a party built on classism and elitism?
The phrase “we’re all in this together”, much loved by members of parliament back in March when we entered a national lockdown, seems to have been quickly forgotten about now that cases are spiking in a distant, northern land, far far away from the Houses of Parliament. When London was the leader for infection rates, we all stayed inside. But now the Tories are just forcing us inside – this time, without the means to survive…
Andy Burnham, the Mayor for Manchester, fought hard against attempts to push the city into tier three without a sufficient support package, calling out Parliament for treating the North with contempt as they consistently failed to communicate with them. Northern ministers only found out about the tier system itself through newspaper headlines. He refused to let the North be treated as Downing Street’s “sacrificial lamb” for an unrealistic and impractical plan that could cost thousands of lives.
Yet the Tories have unsurprisingly treated them as just that. They gave Manchester twenty-two million pounds - which of course Burnham only found out about on live television. Though twenty-two million sounds significant, I promise you that it is not. I am sure soon the ‘magic money tree’ trope will come out to justify the amount, yet the tree was in full bloom for the 10 billion spent on a track and trace app that doesn’t work… Or the 79.7 million used to repair Big Ben. Or the 100 million spent on “get ready for Brexit” posters. Or Boris’s 53 million spent on a bridge that doesn’t even exist. Or the proposed 1.4 billion to renovate a roundabout in Bedford. That’s 63 times more money spent on a roundabout, than over half a million Mancunians.
If you thought the Tories didn’t hate the North before, you should now.
£22 million works out at just under £8 per person. 8 pounds. On the new reduced furlough scheme, the minimum wage is a shocking 5 pounds and 81 pence. They are quite literally pushing people into poverty; showing, yet again, that they do not care.
Matt Hancock tried to shift the blame of rising cases onto the rest of us, putting it down to not following the rules. But when the country reopened pubs, easing the lockdown, leaders in the North East and West expressed concerns over it being too soon. The wave had passed in London, but cases were not low enough in the North. They weren’t ready and weren’t listened to.
Then there are deeper, institutional reasons as to why the North is struggling with the virus. Many Northern regions have areas with generations of deprivation. There is already a significant health divide between the North and South, with long term health conditions more prevalent, and life expectancy lower. Many workforces consist of low paid, public-facing jobs, many of whom had no choice but to return to work when lockdown eased. This pre-existing divide comes from years of Conservative austerity policies that have almost always left the North suffering.
You might still argue that the government is just following the rate of infections, putting the North in lockdown because that’s where cases are high. But is it really that innocent? The Conservative party has, throughout history, threatened everyone but the wealthiest; and as we watch the man, who quite openly referred to working-class men as “drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”, place predominantly working-class areas into clearly unsupported lockdowns, can we really sit back and believe that this is only based on scientific evidence? Scientific evidence that he has conveniently ignored in the past?
Based on “scientific evidence”, Chris Whitty, claimed that the hospitality industry was one of the main culprits for the rise in cases. Yet, this claim was supported by data from a sample of only 98 pubs and 67 restaurants, from the whole of England. With such weak evidence for the closure of an entire industry, it’s no wonder that many are feeling like the north is being treated as the government’s ‘petri-dish experiment’.
Tragically, many Northern areas truly did expect a lot from Boris. Many northern, working-class constituencies that have traditionally voted labour made shocking switches last year in the December elections, electing Tory MPs for the first time in years. A whopping 101 years to be exact in the Rother Valley. Northern constituencies put their trust in Boris and his promises to tackle the sentiment that ‘London comes first’. And yet these biases still control his decisions.
Perhaps it’s becoming clearer that the government never cared about the north in the first place. Boris’s promises were false. The elections posed as the perfect opportunity for the Conservative party to pretend they care about anywhere outside of London, and anyone but the wealthiest in society. The North is and will continue to be under this Tory government: undermined, underfunded, and under-appreciated. Northerners face a long and arduous battle on two fronts; on one side the virus, and on the other, the government.