The war of words between Greater Manchester’s political leaders and the government over the strictest coronavirus restrictions shows no sign of ending at the moment.
Confusion grew on Saturday as Downing Street said talks had been set up with Andy Burnham – but the Mayor of Manchester’s team said nothing had been arranged.
Political leaders in the region have so far refused to accept being placed under Tier 3 rules, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions, without greater financial support for businesses and residents, even though cases are rising fast.
“We will continue to try and reach an agreement on these difficult yet necessary measures to protect the NHS and the people of Manchester,” Downing Street said in a statement, later saying a call had been planned for Sunday.
However, a spokesman for Mr Burnham said: “Nothing has yet been arranged.”
Boris Johnson was also under renewed pressure on Saturday to impose a short national lockdown known as a circuit-breaker, to slow the resurgence of COVID-19.
Liverpool was the first city to be placed under Tier 3 restrictions, with Lancashire following on Saturday. New Tier 2 controls have also been imposed on London, meaning 28 million people – more than half of England – are now living under heightened regulations.
Despite the confusion over talks in Manchester, the region’s police chief has said officers will enforce the restrictions “without fear or favour”.
In an open letter responding to reports the government has not imposed Tier 3 measures on the area over fears police would not enforce them without the mayor’s backing, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Ian Hopkins said that while “accountable” to Mr Burnham, he is “operationally independent”.
Mr Hopkins said in the letter: “We carry out operational policing without fear or favour and in line with the Police Service’s code of ethics alongside colleagues across the country.
“It is for local and national politicians to agree the necessary restrictions to keep us all safe.
“As the chief constable I will then ensure my officers and staff enforce these in a proportionate manner alongside our local authority partners.”
Mr Hopkins said he has been in contact with both the mayor and Home Secretary Priti Patel throughout the pandemic.
“We are all agreed that there needs to be a proportionate level of enforcement to existing regulations,” he said, adding he had “support” from both in relation to the force’s approach.
The sides have been at loggerheads since ministers announced the area was being placed in Tier 3.
Mr Burnham accused ministers of using the region as a “canary in a coalmine” to test the strictest rules and demanded more cash to support local businesses.
Tier 3 rules include households not mixing and pubs and bars closing.
Mr Burnham’s stance was supported by the Right Reverend Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, who accused ministers of being blinkered.
He told Sky News: “We’ve seen now over several days, government not really wanting to engage seriously with what the needs of the North West are.
“We’ve got people in Liverpool feeling cheated because they got a worse deal than Lancashire. We’ve got Lancashire feeling bullied into accepting a deal that is devastating for towns like Blackpool.
“Even the scientific advisers are saying they don’t think the Tier 3 proposals are going to work to get the coronavirus down.
“We’ve got something not backed by science, not agreed with local leaders, and it just smacks of a kind of Westminster-based mentality that has little care or little capacity to understand what life in the north of England is like.”
Boris Johnson tried to increase pressure on Mr Burnham during a Downing Street news conference on Friday, threatening to impose the measures if local leaders did not accept them.
“I cannot stress enough: time is of the essence,” the prime minister said. “Each day that passes before action is taken means more people will go to hospital, more people will end up in intensive care and tragically more people will die.”
But the mayor and council leaders across the region responded by insisting they have done “everything within our power to protect the health of our residents”.
Mr Burnham has threatened legal action if Tier 3 restrictions are imposed on the city without agreement.
Another 16,171 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the UK on Saturday, with 150 more deaths.
The total number of positive cases nationwide now stands at 705,428, according to government figures.
Analysis: Pressure on Boris Johnson is growing – Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
The pressure on Boris Johnson for a so-called “circuit breaker” national lockdown is growing – and not just from the usual suspects of opposition MPs and trade unions, who the prime minister despises in equal measure.
The call for a two-week half term, as part of a circuit breaker lockdown, from the National Education Union will not persuade the prime minister. He views the teaching unions with disdain after they opposed schools re-opening in the summer.
Nor will Mr Johnson want to be seen to bow to pressure from Sir Keir Starmer. Downing Street this week called the Labour leader “a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a national pandemic”.
But the PM may be concerned by comments by Jeremy Hunt – former health secretary, chairman of the Health Select Committee and his defeated rival for the Tory crown – who said he had sympathy for warnings from scientists that a national measure might be needed.
And it’s the scientists, led by the government’s own boffins on Sage, who proposed the circuit breaker back in September, and senior advisers such as Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, who carry the most clout – and whose pressure on the PM may prove decisive.