Council boss warns of unemployment to the ‘level of Thatcher’s 1980s’

Sunderland Council’s leader has warned the area could face levels unemployment last seen “in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was in charge” as the North East tries to avoid Tier 3 restrictions.

Graeme Miller, the leader of Sunderland City Council, said there was “no reason” to put the North East into a Tier 3 lockdown and said they can reduce coronavirus cases if “everyone works together”.

Council leaders last week won a week-long reprieve which meant the region avoided being moved from Tier 2 into Tier 3- the highest category.

But they were told they must prove existing restrictions are working after cases across the region continued to soar.

Sunderland, North Tyneside and County Durham have seen a rise in figures while four other local authority areas have reported a drop in cases in their weekly figures.

Cllr Miller said Tier 3 would mean some businesses would have to close and some would not qualify for government support.

(Image: Copyright Unknown)

He said: “We absolutely see no reason to go into Tier 3 when there was no evidence to suggest that we’d do any better in the long run.

“Tier two at least allows all businesses to stay open and earn money for at least part of the day.

“If we go into lockdown a huge number of our businesses, all of a sudden, shut and not all of them qualify for support from the government.

“What we’re trying to do is juggle keeping people safe which must be paramount. If we have to choose one, we must choose health. We can’t have people dying.

“We’ve got to be very, very careful that we try and do the best we can for our business community as well. Otherwise, we risk unemployment to the level of the eighties when Thatcher was in charge.”

However, he said if cases continue to rise Tier 3 would have to be enforced because people’s health is “paramount”.

The councillor added: “If case numbers continue to rise then Tier 3 would have to be done. There’s no getting away from that.

“I expect that in that stage if you couldn’t argue the logic of it I don’t think we would refuse to do it.

“I think we’ve made the position clear that our stats are showing that we’ve got control of it, but if it was out of control I think we’d have to go into Tier 3. I’ve got no issue with the logic of it at that stage.”

But Cllr Miller said local councils need help from the government and give them the financial support that was “promised to them”.

He said: “To get everybody through it, the government needs to give the local authorities the full financial support they promised them.

“They said whatever it takes, we will pay you the money. Now that’s just a lie, Sunderland is looking at having to use £12.5m of its general reserves to cover the black hole that is left at the end of the year.

“We want the government to give us the powers and the money, the resources to do local test and trace because we believe it can be done better locally. Certainly, test and trace nationally is a complete shambles.

“The government still has not supplied us with a Test and Trace system that works. Boris Johnson promised us a world-beating Test and Trace system for June 1. It’s only world-beating in his imagination, it’s non-existent.

“Until we get that, we’re going to be on a roller coaster. What we’ve got at the moment is a situation where local authorities are imposing restrictions and it suppresses the virus but as soon as you ease those restrictions, the virus comes back.”

Sunderland was one of the areas in a North East which had continued to see a rise in cases but Cllr Miller said the city’s hospitalisation rates and death rates are lower than they were in April and May.

He said: “Whilst we’ve had an increased number of cases, thankfully the hospitalisation rates of people is much lower than it was in the first phase.

“Though we’re still suffering deaths and that is terrible for people to suffer a personal loss because of Covid-19, our hospitalisation rates and our death rates are much lower than they were in April and May.

“We obviously still have the Nightingale hospital setting and ready to go if it was ever needed but we’re hoping it won’t be needed.”

Cllr Miller said although people’s behaviours change when intoxicated, he said pubs and those in the hospitality sector should not be blamed.

He said: “I think the majority of people are still following the rules. You cannot blame people for socialising when they’re allowed to socialise.

“When you drink your inhibitions drop because alcohol changes your personality and your behaviour.

“The likelihood of you continuing to remember to socially distance reduces and the likelihood of remembering to put your mask on when it’s appropriate reduces.

“There is no surprise that that is happening. It’s not deliberate. It’s not intended. That is what happens when you mix people and then people take it home.

“I don’t think pubs are to blame, as far as I’m aware, the vast majority of our hospitality businesses, in general, are trying to ensure that people wash their hands and wear a mask.

“I don’t think people should be blaming our hospitality sector, it’s just because people are still continuing to mix.”

Last week it was reported that more than 120 staff and students at the University of Sunderland have tested positive for coronavirus but Cllr Miller said it’s vital for education establishments to stay open.

He said: “We’re trying to ensure that our hospitality sector obeys and the majority are doing a brilliant job of looking after themselves and their customers.

“We are working with schools to ensure that schools are as safe as is practicable, the university and the college are working with us with their population of young people going back to be educated.

“I want our university’s, our colleges and our schools to stay open because it’s vital that those young people get an education. So I think our educational establishment must be open as long as we can do that safely.

“For people who are at odds with the vast majority of the population I would just ask them to consider what happens if they get the virus but you don’t know you have it and you give it to a loved one and that loved one gets seriously ill or worse.

“Whether you believe it or not, clearly there’s something going on in the population with an infection that is hurting people and in the very worst case killing people.

“Please be considerate of others. Keep everybody safe, including yourself.”

The Department for Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland