‘We’re being treated like guinea pigs’: Manchester vents fury as people prepare for bleakest of winters

Colin Drury
·6-min read
Collapsed businesses, unemployment, declining mental health and poverty becoming further entrenched are expected (Reuters)
Collapsed businesses, unemployment, declining mental health and poverty becoming further entrenched are expected (Reuters)

In Manchester, it is true, many have taken to calling Andy Burnham the King in the North.

The city region’s mayor has long been a popular figure here for his statesman-like handling of the Arena terror attack, as well as initiatives aimed at reducing homelessness and overhauling public transport.

His role spearheading attempts to secure Greater Manchester a fair financial package in return for going into the government’s tier 3 coronavirus lockdown has only enhanced his status.

But on Wednesday – 24 hours after negotiations with ministers finally broke down and it was announced the region would be shuttered with minimal support – there is another phrase from the same TV show which seems equally appropriate.

Winter is coming. And many here now fear it will be the longest, hardest and most devastating in living memory.

The bleak picture is one of a local NHS still stretched by the pandemic, while measures aimed at curbing the virus – including shutting pubs and banning different households from meeting – are only expected to add to the woes.

Collapsed businesses, rising unemployment, declining mental health and long-term poverty becoming further entrenched are all now expected here – not just by the politicians and local leaders who fought for greater government support. By a wider public too.

“We are,” one resident, hairdresser Jason Mellows, tells The Independent, “being used as guinea pigs by a government that has no idea if this tier 3 nonsense will even work anyway.”

His shop, Maclure Barbers, in Manchester’s famed Northern Quarter, has not yet seen custom pick up since the nationwide lockdown in March. Reduced office working and pub-going means reduced numbers of people having trims, it seems.

But it has been the way ministers have enforced further restrictions on Manchester that has most maddened him during a difficult year.

“They are sacrificing the north – our health and our economy – to try and save London,” he says. “They are using us to experiment and to play games. Fair play to him [Burnham] for trying to stand up for us but what a ridiculous way to run a country. It’s cruelty, mate.”

Did his customers feel the same? “You could sit in here all day, mate, and you’d hear the same thing from almost everyone,” the 49-year-old replied. “Although, at the moment, all day would probably only mean about five customers. What a state.”

Jason Mellows thinks the government is sacrificing the northThe Independent
Jason Mellows thinks the government is sacrificing the northThe Independent

This may be the crux of the thing.

Many here appear to accept some form of virus control needs to be implemented (“a working test and trace system?” ponders Mellows). Coronavirus rates remain among the highest in the country at 399.4 positive cases per 100,000 people.

But shuttering the region’s bars – just like shuttering Liverpool’s and Lancashire’s bars a week earlier – appears to be viewed in Westminster as an act that is somehow done in isolation.

It is not, as owners, staff and insiders here will tell you.

The 1,900 licences premises in Manchester itself support a local economic ecosystem, both directly and indirectly, that is vast and sprawling. And which, crucially, will have minimal – if any – state support in the nightmare months ahead.

If pubs and gyms are on the frontline (and so qualify for some basic aid), restaurants, taxi drivers, cleaners, barbers, beauty salons, clothes shops, breweries and food producers will all suffer casualties without the same assistance.

And once they start struggling, says Vaughan Allen, chief executive of CityCo, Manchester’s city centre management company, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop the economic contagion spreading.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that taking away Manchester nightlife today is like taking away the cotton industry 150 years ago,” he says. “It is that crucial to the city’s economic wellbeing. Forcing it to close is an act of destruction.”

He is trying to be optimistic in a time of huge confusion but admits pubs here will likely close in significant numbers.

“I hope we’re talking in the tens rather than the hundreds,” he says. “But…”

It is left hanging in the air.

Latasha McIvor is certain she will sufferThe Independent
Latasha McIvor is certain she will sufferThe Independent

Latasha McIvor is, as she herself says, almost certainly one of those who will suffer.

All too often reports of this week’s negotiations between London and Manchester have played out like whatever a Westminster bubble story is called when it also involves a directly elected mayor and a bunch of council leaders, and takes place over Zoom calls. The breathless focus on deadlines, ultimatums, and the power plays of different authorities have turned the whole situation into a third-rate political psychodrama.

But it is people like McIvor (and, indeed, Mellows) who will face the harshest consequence of what happens now.

Aged 28, 16 weeks pregnant and with a job – a bar manager at The Bay Horse Tavern – where the hours have just been so dramatically slashed that she is already £300 a month down, she says the future is suddenly uncertain.

Her partner is self-employed. He designs and builds pub interiors for a living. “So, there’s not loads of that around at the moment either,” she deadpans.

The Bay Horse is – slight bias alert – one of Manchester’s great boozers. Manager Rob Angus hopes that even if tier 3 restrictions last beyond Christmas, it should be able to just about survive by pivoting to food, using outdoor spacing and maintaining some of its custom base.

But, inevitably, doubts have played on McIvor’s mind. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost any more hours,” she says. “This isn’t some part-time job. I love it. And I have a flat and a car and a baby on the way. I’m trying not to overthink things but we’ve already had to ask for a rent holiday.”

She wants, she says, to stay positive for the new arrival and she believes action should be taken for the greater good. “But it’s not exactly how I would have wanted this to be.”

It is a sentiment almost universally echoed.

The Bay Horse itself is in Thomas Street, a row of the kind of independent boozers, eateries and shops that have helped regenerate this once down-at-heel city centre neighbourhood.

Serving tables at the nearby Cain and Grain bar is Veronika Bartkaovicova.

She looks down the street while chatting to The Independent. “None of us know where we stand, how long we’ll be open or, if we shut, if we’ll even have jobs to come back to,” the 32-year-old says. “Come back in three months, I don’t know. This whole area could look very different.”

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