Liam Halligan: Boris Johnson be warned – lockdown has made our North South Divide even worse

'Lockdown has made those grotesque disparities even worse.'

Published

“The Northerner has grit and is dour, plucky, warm-hearted and democratic; the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate and lazy…”

Strong words, and stylistically dated perhaps, but that was George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, that classic tale capturing the differing outlooks of those from opposite end of our country, with life in the North much tougher than it is for us Southern softies.

Eighty-four years on, the same holds true today. Boris Johnson was elected on a manifesto pledge to “level up every part of the UK … unleashing the potential of the entire country”.

His eighty-seat majority was built partly on a vow to deliver Brexit – backed, of course, by many traditional Labour supporters across the North and Midlands.

But many also switched sides on Tory promises to revitalise down-at-heel regions that, for too long, have missed out on national prosperity.

As Parliament argues about tax and social care, and the political fur flies, bear in mind it’s “levelling up” – is it happening, or is it just a slogan? – that will determine who wins the next general election.

And, under that heading, this government has serious work to do.Average annual earnings are 30% higher in London than the UK average, 50% higher than in the North East. GDP per head in the UK’s wealthiest regions is almost two and a half times higher than in the poorest.

On any standard inequality measures, Britain is the most regionally imbalanced developed nation on earth. Harsher working conditions and relative poverty have long driven differences in North-South health outcomes and even life expectancy.

And now we know – thanks to a report published today by the North Health Science Alliance – that lockdown has made those grotesque disparities even worse.

The North has endured a 17% higher Covid death rate than the rest of England, this report shows. Wages fell further in the North, unemployment rose much more. “This pandemic has hit us all hard in different ways,” the report concludes. “But people living in the North were much more likely to be hardest hit, in terms of both health and wealth”.

During lockdown, it’s been our regional towns, our former industrial heartlands, our hospitality- and tourism-dependent coastal communities, our isolated rural communities, that have endured most economic fallout.

Boris Johnson be warned – lockdown has made our North South Divide even worse.