Skip to main content

A Disunited Kingdom

15 October 2020

By Joe Cockerline

Much has been made of the disparity in COVID infection rates between the North and South of England. Despite today’s news that London looks set to join some Northern cities as it enters Tier Two restrictions over the weekend, it does the issue a disservice to imagine there’s direct parity between the challenge faced by Southern and Northern communities in the ongoing battle against COVID. The simple fact of the matter is that the North remains hamstrung by decades of systemic underinvestment and disenfranchisement which set large parts of the region on the back foot when it comes to containing the spread of the virus.

The narrative that’s been allowed to pervade as COVID rates have increased since the end of summer has in at least some part painted Northern cities as the architects of their own downfall. We’re all familiar with images of crowded streets in city centres shortly after bars and pubs kick out patrons at 10pm, of Liverpool fans celebrating their league win outside the gates of Anfield, of comments earlier this summer from an elected MP stating that BAME communities in places like Bolton and Oldham were “not taking the virus seriously enough”. Increasingly and as the COVID pandemic has unfolded, the narrative has taken a disturbing shift towards a defined divide between the North and South of England. What should be of most concern is the proliferation of the idea that somehow people in the North are disinclined to adhere to measures designed to contain the spread of the virus and are therefore to blame for the second wave the UK currently faces. This is a fallacy, and a dangerous and damaging one that must not be allowed to gain traction.

The fact of the matter is that, for many in the North, measures like “working from home” are simply not on the cards. The number of working adults in frontline roles, or indeed roles at increased risk of suffering job losses, is proportionally far higher in the North than the South. 16% of jobs in the North East are in the human health and social work sector – which directly entails contact with others and indeed those most vulnerable to COVID in the first instance. In London, that figure is 9%. By contrast, just under 7% of jobs in London are in the financial and insurance services sector – which has been largely successful in facilitating a shift to remote working. In the North East that figures is 2%[1]. These disparities are no reflection on the activities of the individual companies in these sectors, but they do illustrate an undeniable difference in employment activity between regions which can only have contributed to an accelerated spread of the virus.

The factors underpinning the spread of COVID are of course more complex than where and how people go to work, but pick nearly any measure of health, happiness and wellbeing and you’ll find the North outstripped by the South. Life expectancy in the North East is 77.9, in London it’s 80.7[2]. Obesity (an increasingly clear COVID mortality risk factor) is highest in the North. The Yorks/Humber region has the highest obesity rates in the country, at around 70%. In London that figure is under 60%[3]. Every way you turn, the North lags the South in measures of wellbeing. The COVID outbreak is nothing more than a spark to a powder keg of poverty, poor health and comparatively poor educational prospects that has characterised the North for too long.

The current government is keen to stay on the good side of Northern voters who helped it break down Labour’s Red Wall in the most recent election. Unfortunately, the chickens have now come home to roost for Boris Johnson and he’s fallen foul of the decades of systemic underinvestment in Northern communities perpetrated by previous administrations and stretching back to Thatcher. For all the talk of billions spend on HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse, the issues facing the North are getting worse, not better.

Middlesbrough (my home) has the worst child literacy rate in the country, alongside other Northern communities in Sheffield and Liverpool and a handful of inner-city London boroughs[4]. 24% of people are classed as living in “relative low income” (read: poverty) in the North East (after housing costs have been deducted), followed by 23% of people in the North West and 22% of people in the Yorkshire/Humber region[5] rounding off the top three. Government stats show that public spending per head is highest in the North East at just over £10k per head per annum[6] – if that’s the case the only possible conclusion is that funds are being deployed ineffectively and/or in the wrong places, or indeed that the level of funding being provided is inadequate. It is apparent that this investment is not improving the lives of people within Northern communities, in turn making them more vulnerable to COVID.

I grew up in the North – it’ll always be my home. And nobody reading this piece should come away from it with the perception that the North is the South’s poor cousin, with no redeeming features. It’s a wildly beautiful, incredibly proud and fiercely independent region of the country that served as the powerhouse of the UK’s manufacturing glory days. But what saddens me most is that the issues the region faces were around long before COVID and will be around long after the virus is contained – indeed, it seems these challenges will only be felt more keenly as the fallout from the virus impacts employment rates, educational attainment and social mobility.

It’s abundantly clear that things have to change for Northern communities. That means genuine investment in infrastructure, it means offering incentives for larger companies to create jobs in these regions and facilitating the growth of small businesses to keep high streets alive. It means, after decades of obfuscation, finding real and meaningful industries to replace the increasingly sparse jobs in the manufacturing sector, which was once the soul of the region. Mostly, it means changing the narrative to finally create a genuine sense of equality between the North and the rest of the country. The need has never been more urgent and the stakes have never been higher – if the Government gets it wrong, it risks consigning generations of people in the North to decades of progressively worsening poverty and disenfranchisement. We can’t allow that to happen. We deserve so much better.

[1] ONS:

[2] ONS:

[3] NHS Digital:

[4] Literacy trust:

[5] House of Commons Library:

[6] House of Commons Library: