Boris Johnson has urged local leaders in Greater Manchester to show “leadership” over the rise in coronavirus cases in the region, amid bitter divides over looming restrictions.
The area could have a Tier 3 lockdown imposed on it if negotiations fail, but the prime minister said he would rather “work out something” instead.
He told broadcasters on Friday: “I am, I have to say, concerned about what’s happening in Manchester where the levels of infection are rising steeply, the level of hospitalisation is rising steeply and we do need to see action.
“I’d much rather not impose things, I’d much rather that we were able to work out something together with local authorities, with the mayor in Manchester.
“But it is up to local leaders to show the kind of leadership that we have seen in Liverpool, in Lancashire and in London.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab earlier told Kay Burley on Sky News that ministers have “the power to proceed” with putting the city into England’s highest band of measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.
After a furious row blew up with Manchester politicians and Westminster following talks yesterday, Mr Raab said a deal “ought to be possible”.
“We’d much rather work with the local leaders if possible,” he told Kay Burley.
But the leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese said there were no more discussions scheduled with the government today.
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“We will keep talking and we’ll keep working,” he said.
“Obviously in the last resort the government has the powers to proceed in any event.”
Mr Raab added the “right thing” for the country was to “avoid a second national lockdown” in the face of coronavirus cases rising a further 18,980 and deaths by 138 on Thursday.
“The way to do it is with a tiered approach that we’ve advocated,” he said.
“That will only work, the scientists tell us, if everyone really leans in and implements it to the maximum.”
But several politician were unimpressed with Mr Raab’s message on Friday.
Three northern mayors – for Greater Manchester, North Tyne and Liverpool City Region – issued a joint statement claiming the government was trying to paint them as “divided”.
“That is simply not the case,” they said.
“We are all united in fighting for an 80% furlough scheme for all people affected by regional lockdowns, wherever they are in the country.
“Paying two-thirds of salaries will not be enough to protect the jobs of thousands – it should at least match the 80% that was available under furlough, with the minimum wage as the minimum support.”
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They added the Universal Credit top up “is not the answer” as it “doesn’t help everybody and takes weeks to come through”, meaning thousands of low-paid workers will still experience “severe hardship” before Christmas.
Labour’s Jim McMahon, MP for Oldham, also tweeted that “less posturing” from ministers and “more practical solutions to reduce the spread of the virus and prevent economic harm… might just work”.
And John Edmunds, a scientist who sits on the government’s science advisory group known as SAGE, has called for ministers in England to follow the lead of Northern Ireland and impose a “circuit breaker”.
Mr Johnson laid out his plans for a three-tier system to suppress a coronavirus second spike on Monday.
In Tier 1, known as Medium, areas must follow the national restrictions – meaning people are only allowed social gatherings of up to six people inside or out, with a 10pm curfew for pubs bars and restaurants.
In Tier 2, people are banned from mixing with others they don’t live with inside, but the Rule of Six still applies outside. Pubs and restaurants can remain open.
And in Tier 3, you cannot meet anyone you don’t live with inside or out, pubs and bars must close unless they can operate as restaurants and no wedding receptions are allowed. People should avoid non-essential travel and staying overnight in another part of the UK, and local politicians will decide if gyms, betting shops, casinos, hairdressers and beauty salons should close.