Gateshead Millennium Bridge

English council leaders reject government’s ‘stay alert’ messaging

Gateshead and Newcastle join devolved nations in arguing that local situations aren’t being taken into account.
15 May 2020 , Katie Coyne

Two English councils have followed Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland’s lead in rejecting the government’s new COVID-19 “stay alert” message.

Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, have developed their own more cautious plans to get out of lockdown. And central government’s “stay alert” message, replacing “stay at home” has been heavily criticised. 

Newcastle and Gateshead councils have publicly said they reject the government’s line as it is confused and premature because test, trace and isolate is not in place.

Martin Gannon, the leader of Gateshead Council, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (15 May 2020). He described the national government’s message change as “reckless” and “horrendously confused” and said that the way local government was being treated was “little less than contemptuous”.

Gannon said: “Although this is a global pandemic, the solution to this can't be handled nationally.” He then pointed to the council’s experience of the national food hub distribution for those on the shielded list, where the authority received “banana-flavoured Angel Delight and noodles” which they then had to go out and supplement.

He added: “We haven't got the same powers as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We don't have the same legislative powers. If I did have those powers, I'd be saying and doing exactly what they're doing in Scotland. 

“The R rate in the north east of England, I'm told, is twice the rate of London. And we have significant numbers of deaths. Our hospitals are still busy. So therefore, I'm extremely concerned. 

“I think what the government is doing nationally is reckless. It may be OK in some of the leafy suburbs and some of the rural villages. But it's not OK in Gateshead. We understand our people. We understand what's going on here.

“What we need to do is to flex control from the centre, which has not been effective, and give it to local authorities and maybe in combinations of local authorities on a regional and sub-regional basis to develop the services and resources and give the advice – linked in with national government of course.. The government, of course, wants to get the economy operating again, we all want to, but it has to be done correctly.

“I think the way in which central government is treating local government at the moment is little less than contemptuous.”

Newcastle is also rejecting the central government messaging. Alongside the Northumbria Local Resilience Forum (LRF) it took the decision in April to heavily supplement the government’s centralised PPE deliveries. They took donations of equipment from local businesses, and took up offers from companies to manufacture gowns and masks to ensure emergency workers had enough PPE and that it reached them in time. 

A spokesperson said they had an instance where a local hospice was running out of PPE and the LRF was able to deliver supplies within 15 minutes, whereas going through central government would have taken two or three days, and would have arrived too late.

Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, said in an official statement: “The government’s change of message from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’ is extremely confusing and the guidance creates some nonsensical situations. You can go back to work and mix with colleagues, but you can’t meet up with family members.

“You can have a cleaner visit your home, but not your relatives. And they’re telling people to walk or cycle, but all the testing centres are drive-through – that means you need a car to use them.

“I’m worried that the lack of clarity about the rules means that the virus will start spreading quickly again, meaning we will see a second spike and face another period of total lockdown.

“It would be far better if they’d stuck with the original messaging until the test and tracing programme is fully ready. Only when that’s in place will we be able to identify and beat the virus in real time.”

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