Wendy Simon was preparing for a Liverpool-wide open council Zoom meeting on Friday 4 December, when she got a message asking if she, as the council’s designated deputy, would lead the session. That wasn’t unusual, she’d done it several times before. The reason, however, couldn’t have been more out of the ordinary.
“My phone was on charge upstairs, I went to make a cup of tea and then I came back into the lounge to lock everybody else out and do the meeting and the chief exec said to me: ‘Have you not seen your phone? I need to speak to you.’”
The city’s larger-than-life mayor, Joe Anderson, had been arrested by Merseyside police on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation, alongside four other men from the city as part of an investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool.
Hit by this controversy at the same time as the number of coronavirus cases in the city was starting to rise exponentially, Simon took over as interim mayor with immediate effect and has been running the city out of the living room of the house she shares with her partner, daughter, son-in-law and two-year-old granddaughter ever since.
Not put off by the long days and occasional sleepless nights, she is bidding to become the first woman to do the role on a more permanent basis, this week launching her candidacy for mayor if local elections go ahead in May. Anderson has denied wrongdoing and is on bail until mid-February, but has said he will not be Labour’s candidate.
“It isn’t something I aspired to do, but as I’ve seen the enormity of what we were facing over the coming months and coming years, I do feel it is important that I put myself forward,” says the softly spoken former social worker. “I am fully aware of the situation we face, and I’m confident of being able to work together with the team to get us through this together and make sure Liverpool comes through this stronger.”
In the lead-up to Christmas, Liverpool’s role in fighting the pandemic was being praised by the government and city leaders alike. A groundbreaking mass test-and-trace system was piloted in the city from the second week of November, identifying hundreds of asymptomatic cases. On 19 November the city region had 189 cases per 100,000 people; by 3 December that number had fallen to 88. However, by 7 January it had rocketed to 1,017 cases per 100,000, with 602 Covid beds occupied, compared with 314 in mid-November.