Manchester in Limbo

After a week of failing negotiations, Boris Johnson’s government had set a deadline for 20.10.2020 by which time Andy Burnham and Manchester had to accept the financial support offered to the city in return for entering into Tier 3 restrictions or ‘face unilateral Government action’. It was unclear what would happen if a deal wasn’t reached. Olivia Lasica writes about her experience that day.

For the past week in Manchester, there has been huge uncertainty. Boris Johnson and his government have been arguing each day with Andy Burnham through newspaper headlines, as they attempt to move the city into tier 3 restrictions. Every time I try to read the news, I am bombarded with the frustration and anger rising out of the negotiations. 

As a student at Manchester University, I am quietly glad for the uneasy normality which has been suspended over the city for the past week because of the deadlocked talks. I am, as many others in the student population and in the wider city population, tired of the COVID restrictions. At the Vic in Withington on Saturday, I spoke to the pub manager and she told me that she thinks we probably will go into Tier 3 – but she doesn’t want to make any final plans to close, just in case. Of course, I, and everybody else, understand the need for them. But I have stopped reading the newspaper headlines in an attempt to live in denial of the looming restrictions. I am trying to ignore everything going on around me for a little longer and remain in this limbo of relative normality. I have found that acting oblivious to what is happening in the world has generally made me less stressed, although I know I can only ignore it up to a certain point. Perhaps it is the fact that I am actively attempting to block out the news about the virus that allows me to be undaunted by everyday life here in Manchester. Otherwise, if I focused on all the details, I’m not quite sure how I would get by. 

But of course, I can’t hide from politics and the virus completely. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I have seen lots of posts about it in student groups. People are lamenting the situation and how difficult it will be under Tier 3 restrictions. Some are focusing too on the way Burnham has been treated during the talks. They have called him the King of the North and have complained at the government’s attempt to exclude him from the negotiations when he ‘knows the North best’. 

Out in the city, I can’t properly escape it either. Police are now everywhere – walking into pubs and restaurants, surveying the streets from their cars. This has become almost normal in the present situation, but I know that a year ago, it would have prompted alarm in me immediately and I would have been checking my phone for the news straight away. Now, I just attempt to ignore it and carry on with whatever I am doing.

 Waking up this morning, I thought about all of this and decided that it was finally time to read the news properly. A BBC article announces that Manchester is being held in ‘limbo’ before Boris makes a decision on the restrictions. I think about the pub manager going into work today and not knowing whether the pub, and her source of income, will make it to the end of the day. I read articles about the criticisms thrown at Burnham from Boris and other southern MPs, claiming that he is conveniently ignoring the high rate of hospital admissions in the city. Other articles discuss the North-South divide which has ‘never been more obvious.’ Lying in my bed and looking at my phone screen, I read about how this is ‘a moment of high tension for the country and for Manchester.’ It will all be decided at 3pm today.

I get up and start getting ready for the day. During breakfast, my friends joke and ask me whether we should just drop everything and head off to the pub – it could be our last chance in a while, they say. Leaving the house to cycle into town, I try to clear my head and forget about it all for a little bit. It is a beautiful sunny day, there are no clouds above and the sky is light blue as far as I can see. Leaves are beginning to fall off trees and scatter across the pavement. The streets look yellow and warm in the daylight. How can this be doomsday for Manchester? The contrast strikes me as I switch between what I can see now, the city lit up in beautiful rays of sun, and thinking about the headlines and news this morning.

But this is punctured slightly as I approach the centre of town. I begin to see more and more police. They aren’t just in their normal cars but also in vans, with black metal shields on their fronts. I see dozens of officers sitting inside, behind the darkened windows. Somewhere in the city, I can hear ambulances rushing through the streets. I quickly park up my bike by a cafe and head inside it to do some work.

I think about these contrasts whilst sitting in the cafe and notice how COVID news has a way of seeping into life no matter how hard I try to stop it. I remember how normal it is now to see queues forming outside pubs in the middle of the day. I remember how scared and ashamed I suddenly feel when I’m walking to a friend’s house with a drink in hand and a police car drives past. It feels like I’m living during Prohibition and all the student-y aspects of life have to be done in secret. I remember, too, my medic housemate coming home in the evening and telling us over supper about how the wards she was assigned to work on have been locked off with no entry banners when she has arrived to begin the day. They had been turned into emergency coronavirus wards. 

I finish working at 4 and head home on my bike. As I am cycling, I alternate between looking at the police vans and cars, and listening out for the sirens, to observing the road I am cycling along, at the shops I am passing, the residential streets. I begin to understand what people mean when they say life carries on in a time of crisis. This is a different sensation to the lockdown in spring. Then, life really did stop. But here, I find normality even when all everyone can talk about is how not normal life is in the present moment. I still have all my deadlines, my lectures, my seminars. The libraries and university buildings are still open. I’m still seeing my bubble of friends and finding ways of hanging out safely. Manchester might be stuck in a crisis, but my life as a student still wheels on. 

Olivia Lasica