In an IoD webinar, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, said entrepreneurs were the ‘engine room’ of the economy and they had been betrayed by a lack of COVID-19 support. Tony McDonough reports
Metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham are considering a legal challenge in support of the 3m UK entrepreneurs excluded from the Government’s COVID-19 support packages.
On Thursday evening the Metro Mayors of Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester held an online briefing where the issue of those excluded was a major topic. Company directors, and the newly self-employed are among those who have had no Government support. Their plight has been highlighted by the Excluded UK campaign.
On Friday morning both Mr Rotheram and Mr Burnham took part in a free webinar organised by the Institute of Directors (IoD) in the North West and said they had been moved by some of the accounts from those excluded from the help and claimed it had become a “hidden mental health crisis”.
And IoD Liverpool chair, David Wafer of McIver Scott Recruitment, who chaired the webinar, said he was aware that circumstances some people had found themselves in had “bordered on tragedy”. He said the IoD was 100% behind the campaign to ensure a fair deal for all the 3m excluded people.
Speaking to the audience of business people from Merseyside and across the North West, Mr Rotheram said there was a strong indication that when the Government put the COVID-19 support measures together it failed in its legal obligation to ensure they were not discriminatory.
“When the Government does something like this it is supposed to carry out a rigorous and robust assessment to ensure it does not discriminate against anyone,” he explained. “We don’t think they have done that and it offers the possibility of a legal challenge.
“But we realise that does not necessarily help people right now. But this campaign is many-pronged and it is also about winning hearts and minds… what we need is for the Government to step up and do the right thing.”
He said that people who had taken the risk to set up their own businesses were the “engine room” of the UK economy and now they were being betrayed. He added: “These are people who should be celebrated. Instead, they have been battered for eight months.”
Mr Burnham said that many of those excluded from the support were feeling a “sense of rejection”. He added: “These 3m people have been encouraged to become entrepreneurs. For the country to then punish them is quite an anti-business statement.”
Both mayors spoke about the very public battles they fought with Government in October over the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions and the support offered to businesses. They claimed there had been an “aggressive” approach by Government and a divide and rule strategy – but they insisted it had not worked.
“They picked on the wrong two people to divide and conquer,” said Mr Rotheram. “They simply didn’t realise how often Andy and I talk to each other. We have both asked for economic impact assessments for both of our regions.
“We have also asked for the science behind the regional restrictions and we still haven’t had that. We also want to know what the exit strategy is from the different tiers. It is like the line from the Eagles song, Hotel California – ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.”
Both Mayors are firm in their belief that regional lockdowns are not the way to control and bring down transmission of COVID-19. They instead favour shorter, shaper national circuit-breaker lockdowns.
“We think local lockdowns are divisive and ineffective,” said Mr Burnham. “What we would like to see is a plan for 2021 that could see circuit-breaker lockdowns to coincide with the school holidays. I hope we would not need them but you need to have a plan in place in case you do.”
They said they were optimistic for the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and had submitted their ‘Build Back Better’ plans to Government. High on the agenda will be decarbonisation and large-scale investment into the green economy.
Mr Burnham said: “There will be a permanent change to how we live and work in the North West. Perhaps not as much as some have said, but things will be different. Investing in the green economy will create jobs in things such as retrofitting homes to become zero carbon. It is not often to get the opportunity to create thousands of jobs that will last for a generation.
“We will see an acceleration of the carbon-free economy. Businesses might hear the ‘green agenda’ and think it will be an extra cost burden. But the benefits are huge and I think the North West can become a centre of excellence for green energy.”
Mr Rotheram is already advancing plans for a multi-billion pound tidal power project on the River Mersey which he claims could provide clean energy for a million homes for 100 years. And it could be operational as soon as 2030.
“We are planning for the future,” said Mr Rotheram. But he added that it was not just about major infrastructure projects and new buildings. Building a kinder society where we eliminate things such as homelessness and properly recognise the role of key workers had to be part of that future, he said.
He added: “We clapped for the key workers and now we need to recognise the role that they play. We need people treated appropriately for the skills that they offer and we need to give them a pay rise. What we need is a recognition of the inter-dependency of our society.”