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Today's webinar took the form of a conversation between the CBI’s own Deputy Director-General, Josh Hardie, and Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester. Here are the main subjects they discussed:
- The prospect of a tough winter
- Gaps in the defences
- Returning to offices
- Why devolution is necessary
- Some positive side effects.
The prospect of a tough winter
Referring to Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion that the country may be mostly back to normal by Christmas, Andy said that “I admire the Prime Minister’s optimism, but I don’t necessarily share it”.
In fact, Andy added that Greater Manchester is planning for “a very tough winter – probably the toughest the NHS will ever face”.
This appraisal is, in part, based on his time as Health Secretary, when he had to oversee the response to swine flu in 2009. In that case, a vaccine arrived just before winter – but, even so, it took from “the end of October” to “March of 2010” until it had been fully administered. “The hardest part of swine flu was deciding who gets [the vaccine] as its produced in small batches.”
Now, in the case of Covid-19, Andy believes that the “best-case scenario is… a vaccine landing in spring next year”. He continued: “Even if it’s starting to come through in November, December… you’ve still got to manufacture it.”
This would mean a very difficult winter, in part because the winter tends to be difficult for the health service anyway. “In any winter,” he said, “you’ll see black alerts where A&E [departments] can’t take any more patients. If you add a second national spike of Covid into that, then you can see that the NHS could be overwhelmed.”
Andy did emphasise that he wasn’t being unduly pessimistic nor trying to dent people’s confidence – quite the opposite. “I don’t think confidence comes from misplaced optimism. [It comes from] a real sense of the six or eight months we’ve got ahead of us.”
Gaps in the defences
As Greater Manchester prepares for a tough winter, Andy identified three particular “gaps” in their defences, where they could use more support from the government.
The first is “the ability of councils to respond [to cases] quickly”. Progress has been made in supplying local authorities with the nationally collected data on coronavirus cases and contacts – but it is still “patchy”. As Andy explained, “occupation is not routinely recorded, ethnicity is not routinely recorded,” and this hinders local efforts to contain outbreaks.
Alongside this data, “give us some help to employ an army [of contact tracers] on the ground”. Andy suggested that “too much,” including contact-tracing, “has been centralised in the UK response to the pandemic”. A more “grounded operation” could reach the people that call centres often cannot.
The second gap emerges when you consider the question, “Why is this virus hitting poorer communities harder?” The answer, in part, is because poorer communities will contain many people who “can’t follow the government’s advice” on social isolation because of concerns about sick pay. For these people, the government should provide some form of extra support, suggested Andy.
And the third gap is transport. “We need that transport capacity,” said Andy, “so people can return to work.” But Manchester’s Metrolink tram service currently runs without public subsidy – all its money is “from farebox, so when you lose out on the farebox you’re knackered”. And a transport system without money is a transport system that cannot run double services to maintain social distancing.
“Financing a transport system is critical to [the] recovery.”
Returning to offices
Andy would like these defences strengthening so that it’s easier for people to return to their offices: “Not returning to offices? I think that would be devastating for towns but more for city centres.” His point was that so many businesses rely on trade from office workers in the week.
“We are making an appeal for a return to offices,” he continued. “It should start in mid-August, particularly when the government advice changes.”
However, Andy also emphasised that any return to offices should be managed carefully. In this respect, he’s trying to lead by example: “I’m planning on bringing a third of people back into the office in late August to mid-September… with staggered start times… allowing more home working.”
“Think of a return to offices this year,” he urged audience members. “Not fully, but a third.”
Why devolution is necessary
“Greater Manchester is capable,” said Andy on the subject of the area’s political power. “It’s a capable system. We are using what we’ve got.”
But: “There are so many things we could do better if we had new powers.”
He gave the example of employment support. Some parts of the government’s work programme, for delivering the long-term unemployed back into the labour market, have already been devolved to Greater Manchester, and this has shown what can be achieved. “We’ve been running a completely different approach to getting people back into work – with double the success rate of the national work programme.”
“This is the moment for devolution,” emphasised Andy. “Employment support is something that should be devolved, alongside skills training…. More transport powers; I don’t have the same transport powers as the Mayor of London.”
And the reason it works? In part it’s because local authorities and politicians have local knowledge that they can leverage to make sure that policies actually work on the ground. But it’s also something broader: “The difference between the national system and the local system is… the national system is built on division. Devolved politics is built around place, and place is a unifying force.”
Josh agreed that there are “some brilliant things we can do” with devolution. But he also identified three areas of risk:
- Capacity. “It’s hugely variable out there…. You can’t devolve ahead of capacity.”
- Consistency. “A risk that, in some areas, business operations could differ.”
- Safety net. “However you do this, some places will not be ready – how do you make sure that the government is there to support [them]?”
Some positive side effects
Both Andy and Josh agreed that one of the positive legacies of the pandemic will be, in Andy’s words, “accelerated progress towards zero-carbon”.
This is partially to do with necessity. As Andy explained, “If we’re going to hit [net zero] in 2050 – or 2038 in Greater Manchester’s case – you’re going to have to retrofit every property in the land. Create those jobs now. We’re told that thousands of jobs could be created in Greater Manchester in retrofitting.”
But it’s also because of conviction. Josh revealed that the CBI’s conversations with thousands of businesses “show that they are really stepping up on this…. It does feel as though there’s momentum here.”
Key questions we answered:
- Andy, how has Greater Manchester navigated the last few months, and what key decisions have you had to make?
- We’ve got one of the largest business support groups in the country – The Growth Company – so, we’ve been providing support to businesses throughout the last few months.
- The focus is on what comes next: the ‘Living with Covid’ phase. We have to work on the basis that it will be at least a year before this is behind us. I admire the Prime Minister’s optimism, but I don’t share it. I think things need to be done so we can face what’ll be a tough winter.
- We need to do whatever we can to build the platform of confidence to control this virus on the ground. Everything comes from the safety message.
- What I think we need to do in Manchester:
- Give councils the ability to intervene quickly – give them the data so they can quickly get to the source of an outbreak
- Employ our own contact tracers on the ground – our national system is a call centre and it isn’t reaching everyone. You need people on the ground banging on doors
- Reach people in poorer communities – the virus is hitting poorer communities harder because people in those communities don’t feel confident enough to tell their employer they’ve been contacted and told to self-isolate for 14 days. The government needs to reassure them that there are arrangements in place
- Extend the package of support for our tram network – this runs out in a couple of weeks. If we haven’t got the money, we cannot run the trams
- Challenge the business community on returning to the office – I’ve heard a lot of businesses saying they will not send their employees back any time soon. I think that would be disastrous for towns and city centres, as these depend on office workers.
- Andy, is the German model of testing and tracing better than ours?
- The German model is a devolved model, so you can see why they have had a better response. In the UK, too much has been centralised. We have experts in contact tracing in Manchester who were side-lined when a national model was created.
- Digital communication is the first step. But in poorer communities, that approach isn’t working. For example, in Rochdale and Oldham, the successful contact rate is below 50%.
- There are people in zero-hours jobs who don’t want to tell their boss they can’t come to work.
- Some communities are affected by language barriers and the messages aren’t always getting through. That is why you need to supplement the call centre operation with a ground operation run by local councils. The call centres should say to the council “we cannot get through to this person, can you reach out to them and get them to self-isolate?”
- Andy and Josh, why do you think this will be the most challenging winter in the history of the NHS?
- Andy – We know that A&E departments get overloaded in December and January during the flu season. If you add a second national spike, the NHS could be overwhelmed in some places. We have never faced a winter like this in the NHS. I think Spring next year is the best-case scenario for when we can expect a vaccine. It could land at some point in the winter, but I think you have to plan for it not to come.
- Josh – We would love to see offices fuller. But that relies on confidence. If we are talking about the risk of a second spike and a vaccine not coming this year, it keeps the virus front and centre in people’s minds. Businesses need to prepare for a possible second spike while reassuring their employees that they are safe.
- Andy and Josh, what do you think the GMCA’s powers should be?
- Andy – We are the most advanced devolved system in England. The strength of our system has shone through in this crisis. I have chaired our emergency committee with partners including public health representatives, local councils and the NHS. So from the outset of the crisis, all the relevant institutions were talking to each other. Our hospitals were sharing PPE with our care homes at the outset of this crisis, and we also had our own PPE procurement operation. I think this is the moment we need to move towards a devolved system as it’s a healthier way of doing politics.
- Josh – The crisis has shown that there have been really good examples of devolution working well, often in areas where there are Metro Mayors. But capacity is key – some areas will have more capacity than others. You also need consistency as you devolve more powers. Finally, you need a centralised ‘safety net, as some places will not be ready, however you roll out the recovery.
- Andy, what can be done on net zero and on employment for young people?
- The Manchester Growth Company has set up a brokering system for businesses who know they cannot bring people back from furlough to partner with another company that can take them on. It’s a bit like a clearing house for businesses.
- I think when we look back on this century, it will be the moment that the world accelerated progress towards net zero. I think that will be a legacy of the pandemic.
- We must focus on future job creation as well. One example is the retrofitting of homes to make them zero-carbon. That will create jobs as well, so we will have to accelerate this.
- Andy, what has this crisis taught us about social cohesion?
- The virus has exposed the inequalities in our country in a very big way, such as essential workers being not necessarily paid as such, as well as the lack of resilience in poorer communities.
- We have to build resilience in all communities coming out of this.
- Levelling up starts with people and with building the resilience of people in poorer communities.