Confusion, anger and anxiety reign supreme across the north east of England, after Boris Johnson and his ministers struggled to explain the new coronavirus restrictions they have imposed on the region.
This is the so-called “red wall” region that carried Mr Johnson to victory at the last general election and helped the Conservatives construct a solid blue majority in the Commons. In December the prime minister promised to give them a “wonderful adventure” while repaying their trust.
The pandemic has put paid to the adventure, and trust is running out fast. Voters told The Independent of their dismay at the “chaotic” manner in which the government has introduced local lockdowns on socialising.
From Wednesday people are banned from any mixing with other households in any indoor setting – including pubs and restaurants – across Newcastle, Gateshead, Durham, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Northumberland and Sunderland.
“I can’t see any sense in these new rules whatsoever,” says Gregg Watson, who lives in Wansbeck – the one Northumberland constituency the Tories failed to take from Labour last year.
The 30-year-old, who is looking for retail work after losing his job, says the measures lack common sense. “It’s effectively been made illegal to socialise with anyone from another household. Yet people can still go to nonessential shops and pubs, with the high chance they will see someone they know.
“At the beginning of the outbreak people were sticking to the rules. But since MPs and other government officials broke the rules themselves, people have stopped listening.”
Mr Watson doesn’t think Labour will have trouble winning back seats in the north east. “I think the handling of Covid-19 will mark the end to the Conservative government,” he says.
Zafer Saygilier, the owner of seven pubs in Newcastle and Berwick-upon Tweed, says he was “gutted” to learn of the new ban on different households mixing in pubs.
“The 10pm curfew was detrimental enough, then the rules change again and make it even more difficult,” says the 51-year-old. “We can’t give up – we have employees relying on us. But the longer this goes on, the harder it gets to survive.”
Mr Saygilier adds: “I voted for the Conservatives, but I’m disappointed in them – and I know other business owners who are disappointed as well. The sector is knees and it feels like they’re giving up on us. The government seem to be suggesting we just retrain for different jobs – that’s hard to take at the moment.”
Tim Robson, northeast representative for the National Pubwatch group, has been helping owners carry out Covid risk assessments so they remain compliant with the rules. “There is a huge amount of frustration,” he says.
“Pubs have worked so hard to adapt – but the chaotic way the rules keep changing means a lot of them just can’t cope. I looked on my Facebook last night and one owner said ‘That’s me finished’. Another said he had decided to move abroad.”
Mr Robson has been busy explaining to pubs they shouldn’t encourage different households to meet up in pub beer gardens – since it would be against guidance, even if there isn’t yet an outright ban on it – after the government failed to clear up the confusion.
“People in the area are generally feeling quite despondent about everything now,” Mr Robson adds. “I’ve heard people say they’ll take fines in order to go out and see their loved ones.”
Surprise at the new fines imposed on rule breakers, which rise to up to £10,000, have added to the wider sense of malaise.
Madelaine Hanson, a communications manager living in Newcastle, thinks people are fed up enough to break the rules and “lie” about meeting up with other households if restrictions continue until the spring.
“The government doesn’t seem to understand how frayed people’s morale is up here,” says the 24-year-old.
“People are furious. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. Even my parent’s generation are sick of having no say in the risks they are allowed to take for themselves – and the effects this is having on their businesses and mental health.
“Every time I get into a taxi or go into a shop I hear someone complaining bitterly,” Ms Hanson adds. “I know lifelong Tories here who are now refusing the vote for the Conservatives again.”
The prime minister didn’t help matters on Tuesday when he attempted to explain new rules in the north east and began talking about outdated measures limiting “six in a home, six in hospitality”. Mr Johnson later apologised and admitted he “misspoke”.
“New rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors … You should also avoid socialising with other households outside,” he tweeted.
Apologies, I misspoke today.
In the North East, new rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home. You should also avoid socialising with other households outside. (1/2)
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 29, 2020
It followed earlier confusion when his education minister Gillian Keegan, appearing on BBC Radio 4, was asked if different household could still meet up in pub gardens. Ms Keegan replied: “I’m sorry, I can’t clarify that.”
Newcastle City Council’s leader Nick Forbes believes the government’s failure to pay attention to detail had led to people to spreading half-truths – saying the confusion “sends out the message that they just don’t know what they’re doing”.
How worried are “red wall” Tory MPs at support ebbing away in their constituencies?
In a joint letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, Teesside MPs Jacob Young, Matt Vickers and Simon Clarke joined forces with County Durham MPs Peter Gibson and Paul Howell complained a ban on households meeting up would “condemn thousands of local people to loneliness and isolation.”
Mr Johnson cuts an isolated figure himself these days. He faces up uphill struggle to convince voters, businesses and local leaders in the north east – and many of his own red wall MPs – that he understands their frustrations.