James Forsyth James Forsyth

Divided nation: will Covid rules tear the country apart?

The north-south split could cost the Tories their majority

‘From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction — you must stay at home,’ Boris Johnson declared on 23 March. At the beginning of the pandemic, when infection levels first began to rise, the country was all in it together. The prescription was a national one, and the Prime Minister could speak to the nation as one. Though infection levels have begun to surge again, the restrictions are now specific and local. The PM can no longer address the country as a whole, and this poses a problem for him.

Last time, at least, there could be no claims that the Tories were favouring one particular area at the expense of the rest. When London was hit hard and the South-West virtually unaffected, everyone was given (and obeyed) the same stay-at-home mandate. Cabinet ministers admit that one of the reasons a London-only lockdown was ruled out then was a fear that it would send out a message that life in the capital was more valuable than elsewhere.

Now, Scotland and Wales are doing things their way — Nicola Sturgeon is perhaps about to impose the strictest rules in the UK. Two-thirds of the north of England is under heightened restrictions, and has been for weeks. But in the south of the country, life carries on close to normal. This is a gift for those politicians whose stock-in-trade is arguing that ‘Westminster’ doesn’t care about them, and it makes the policy response harder too: what national economic support should be available when parts of the country are functioning fairly normally and other places are under intense restrictions?

The government’s plan so far has been to introduce a system of Covid alert levels, corresponding to three levels of restrictions. But the announcement of this scheme is being held up by two questions.

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