Council leaders in Lancashire have dramatically claimed they were “bullied, harassed, threatened and blackmailed” by Downing Street into imposing the toughest Covid-19 restrictions.
No. 10 officials were accused of threatening to withhold funding from councils who refused tier 3 curbs, with town hall figures saying their area faced becoming “an island” if they did not fold.
It was announced on Friday that Lancashire would follow Liverpool into the “very high” alert level, with pubs and bars not serving food forced to close and people from different households barred from mixing.
But after the news was released, council leaders hit out at being “punished” by a £30m local furlough package that would see just 66% of people’s wages covered.
Preston and Pendle’s council leaders issued a joint statement claiming Downing Street officials “threatened any district leader who did not fall into line” by saying funding would be withheld.
It follows Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accusing the government of treating the north “like a sacrificial lamb” and “experimenting” with new local lockdown rates.
He says the region will refuse to be forced into new measures unless ministers offer to return the 80% furlough scheme from the first, national, lockdown.
Meanwhile Paul Foster, leader of South Ribble council, said: “There’s no other way to put this than we have been bullied, harassed, threatened and blackmailed into moving into tier 3.”
He added: “The discussions with government were a complete shambles and we were basically told if we didn’t accept the restrictions we would have even more draconian measures imposed on us – that is no way to do work with council leaders. It is treating us with contempt.”
The Labour leader of Blackpool Council, Lynn Williams, said: “This is not what I wanted for Blackpool. We had no option but to ultimately agree this. Had we have not done so we would have been placed in Tier 3 with no money and no support measures.”
She added: “We could have turned this deal down, but more businesses would have suffered as a result of it and we would have been put into Tier 3 soon anyway.”
Labour’s Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, and Mohammad Iqbal, leader of Pendle Council, together issued a strongly worded statement laying into the government.
It read: “Lancashire leaders have been bullied by 10 Downing Street into accepting a deal that all sides know isn’t enough to stop the virus.
“Lancashire leaders along with local public health directors have been calling for months for a fully functional test and trace system, clarity on regulations and guidance, greater enforcement and better testing in and around schools and educational facilities.”
The two leaders added: “Throughout the negotiations, government officials were only interested in the politics and threatened any district leader who did not fall into line with […] an imposition of tier 3 and that their borough ‘would become an island’ that would receive less in funding and resource.
“When people on one side of the street are being resourced to help stop the virus whilst people on the other side of the street aren’t, they are instead being punished, then public health policy has collapsed.
“The government refused to accept that people on the minimum wage or very low incomes would not be able to survive for months on just 66% of their wage having already endured six months’ hardship.”
In a direct attack on chancellor Rishi Sunak, they accused government of breaking its promises to “level up” the north.
They said: “The chancellor Rishi Sunak’s promise that the government will provide ‘whatever is necessary’ has clearly become a broken promise to the people of Lancashire and the north.
“Lancashire leaders have not been given the policies or the means to stop the spread of the virus and have been bullied for political gain by 10 Downing Street.”
Responding on Friday, the prime minister’s official spokesperson would not comment on discussions, but said: “Our approach throughout has been to work constructively with local authorities and to ensure, as we have throughout, that the right level of support is available locally because we know just how difficult the restrictions are.”