Councils with high coronavirus infection rates should be given charge of their own test and trace efforts, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has argued.
Mr Burnham appealed for the powers on Wednesday following a U-turn by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on a decision to lift local lockdown restrictions in Bolton and Trafford on the same day the changes were due to be made.
Council leaders in both boroughs had pleaded for the ban on two households mixing to be maintained but regional chiefs woke up thinking the restrictions had been lifted overnight, as was the case with previous Government lockdown changes.
But the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) insisted the alterations were not due to take place until midday.
Mr Hancock said he took “swift and decisive” action in respect of Bolton and Trafford but Labour’s Mr Burnham said the Government had been guilty of a “Whitehall knows best” attitude.
The Labour politician said power to run test and trace programmes should be handed to Greater Manchester councils so a “more sophisticated, targeted approach” could be taken.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, Mr Burnham said: “Throughout this crisis, we’ve had a ‘Whitehall knows best’ mentality at play and it continues.
“It really isn’t good enough when the front line is very much with us now – we need to be empowered to take the decisions to protect our communities rather than constantly waiting for Government to get its act together.
“I’m very clear about what we need: local control of test and trace with door-to-door teams – in Oldham, that is what got their numbers down and that is what we need across all of Greater Manchester.
“We need financial support for people to self-isolate, particularly people on low wages or who are self-employed – that is critical because we are just not seeing people comply with the national test and trace system.”
The former health secretary called on ministers to produce an “exit strategy” for local lockdowns and said the region needed to move away from “blanket regulations” when trying to tackle the virus.
Mr Hancock said a “sharp increase” in Covid-19 cases in Bolton and Trafford over the past few days led to the sudden decision not to lift the local restrictions in those areas.
Bolton and Trafford had been set to join other parts of northern England in resuming social gatherings in two households for the first time in weeks, along with Stockport, Burnley, Hyndburn and parts of Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.
But a statement was released by DHSC shortly after midday on Wednesday, the point at which it said the restrictions had been due to be lifted in the two Greater Manchester boroughs, confirming lockdowns would persist in the areas.
A spokesman for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the way the decision was handled was “utterly chaotic”.
Mr Hancock, asked by BBC News about why Mr Burnham and others thought the restrictions had been lifted overnight, said: “The measures were due to be lifted today and we took the decision that they aren’t going to be lifted in Trafford and Bolton because the number of cases have gone right up.
“In both Bolton and Trafford over the past few days we’ve seen quite a sharp increase in cases and the numbers have doubled, so that’s why we had to take this swift and decisive action today.”
His department said the latest data in Bolton showed the weekly infection rate was 66.6 per 100,000 people on August 30, compared with 18.9 between August 17 and 23, while in Trafford the rate was 36.8 per 100,000, up from 17.8.
Greater Manchester is united across party lines on what we need:— Andy Burnham (@AndyBurnhamGM) September 2, 2020
âªï¸local control of Test & Trace with door-to-door teams
âªï¸financial support to self-isolate
This is the exit strategy weâre asking Ministers to agree.
Weâll continue to ask people to minimise mixing at home. 2/2 https://t.co/NH4JxCEGJV
Last week, council leaders in Trafford had recommended that restrictions be maintained to wait for more evidence of a sustained downward trend in positive cases but were opposed by one of the area’s MPs, Conservative Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
Bolton successfully appealed to the Government to bring Covid-19 restrictions in line with the rest of England, but Tory council leader David Greenhalgh backtracked on Tuesday after the surge in the infection rate.
Mr Greenhalgh said: “Myself and colleagues realise that many people will be extremely frustrated and annoyed by this decision, but it would have been irresponsible not to recognise the unpredicted spike we have seen in Bolton which has seen the borough record the second highest increase in positive cases in the country.”
A spokeswoman for Trafford Council said: “We know that many residents and businesses were looking forward to taking advantage of the relaxation of restrictions but we are in this together and it is important we stick to the guidance to bring the rates down again.”