It was “Mayors day” at the Covid-19 Inquiry last week. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Mayor of the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotherham gave evidence about their experiences during the pandemic. Not many appear to have been positive. I watched Mayor Khan’s and Mayor Burnham’s testimonies. Plenty of differences emerged, but also some key common themes – with perhaps some lessons for the future of devolved government in the UK.
The clearest point of consensus was that the voices of devolved government in England were excluded from decision making at the centre and that their inclusion might have led to better decisions, improving outcomes for both public health and the economy and even saving lives.
Khan focused on his exclusion from early COBRA meetings, the forum where Prime Ministers bring together politicians, civil servants and those at the coal face of a crisis in an attempt to grasp it effectively. As the UK’s largest, most densely-populated city and its most connected international transport hub, London was likely to be hit first. Its demographics, housing situation and economy are different from other parts of the country, and it faced different challenges. In addition, its Mayor was in regular contact with a network of other world city Mayors, built up over years. By late February March 2020, some of those cities were already dealing with the pandemic.
Mayor Khan’s team felt he had something to contribute as well as good reason to be kept informed, and repeatedly attempted to get him in the room. They were repeatedly rebuffed, and decisions were made without London-specific input. Greater Manchester would be similarly left out. With Manchester two-to-three weeks behind London in terms of the spread of the virus, Burnham argued at the inquiry that the first centrally-imposed lockdown was lifted without consultation when London was ready, but Manchester was not. This left his city with a higher case rate for the rest of 2020.
Burnham’s claim of “London-centric” decision-making was the Guardian’s headline. But as Khan repeatedly highlighted, Londoners’ specific needs went unconsidered too. It is true that the capital became the UK’s premier “working from home” city, and Burnham was right to point out that fewer Mancunians were able to work remotely. But London’s sheer size means that, even if the proportions are lower, there were (and are) more zero-hours workers in the capital than in the entire North West of England. Both cities’ leaders claimed the needs of such workers, under pressure to travel to work throughout the pandemic even when it was dangerous to do so, were not given enough consideration. And this is just one example.
Watching Khan’s and Burnham’s evidence, I was struck by the sense of powerlessness that both seem to have felt. The response of Burnham, a former health secretary, at the time was more combative, with regular media appearances and that famous press conference attacking the government’s insufficient offer of funding to support Greater Manchester’s move into Tier 3 restrictions.
Burnham claims that intervention was followed by a “punishment beating” from central government: “Because we took that stand, they decided to make an example of us.” For his part, Khan recalled feeling “almost winded” upon hearing the government’s view of the state of the pandemic at the first COBRA meeting he was actually invited to, in mid-March 2020. He described a feeling of “lack of power, lack of influence”.
Neither Khan nor Burnham are above criticism, of course. They had some agency, and perhaps could have done things differently. It is also true that many of the decisions faced by the government during the pandemic were unbelievably complex and difficult, and the greater input from the two Mayors may not ultimately have made much difference. And of course, these were two Labour Mayors giving their views on a Conservative national government’s handling of a crisis which was already thought bad enough to warrant an inquiry in the first place. But, given that Khan and Burnham are different in so many ways yet came up against such similar challenges, it seems difficult to argue that there weren’t fundamental issues.
Some of this may have been about personal relationships. Khan highlighted that he had been invited to COBRA meetings by Theresa May following the Grenfell Tower fire and by Liz Truss as part of the Operation London Bridge planning of events following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps a different Prime Minister or administration would have brought the Mayor of the UK’s most connected city and most densely-populated region in to those early Covid gatherings.
There is also a structural issue. That the involvement of city Mayors was deemed an optional extra speaks to where we are as a nation regarding English devolution. One solution might be to hope that central and city-region government are all good pals in advance of next time we plan to have a pandemic. Another might be to introduce some more formal changes to the way government operates, in order to reduce the impact of individual likes and dislikes.
A new report by King’s College London has called for a “council of mayors” to be established on a statutory basis, establishing a forum between English metro mayors and the Prime Minister, with a requirement for a certain number of meetings a year. Whether this is the right mechanism or not, the principle seems sound.
National governments tend to centralise in a crisis. There can be good reasons for this: when faced with huge external shocks, there is often a sense that someone somewhere must “get a grip” and mobilise the state’s response. And pandemic experiments in localism, such as the “tiering” system, do not appear to have been great successes. But if policy must be made centrally, surely a little input from those tasked with leading locally could lead to better outcomes.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. Image of Sadiq Khan at Covid hearing from Sky News. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack. You will even get things for your money.