The Long Haul To The Covid New Normal Has Only Just Started

Patience will be a virtue with wartime borrowing levels and lots of exit route phases. Forget Fergie time, it's JVT time.

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Speak your wait machine

On his return from his brush with mortality, Boris Johnson warned the nation to “contain your impatience” in the fight against Covid-19. Only yesterday he told Keir Starmer he “will have to contain his impatience” for meaningful international comparisons of the different nations’ responses to the disease.

Throughout his career, it has been the PM himself who often suffered from political incontinence, unable to resist a quip, a headline, an easy policy option. The last election (like his London Mayoral elections before it) actually proved that Johnson can stick rigidly to a script when he wants to, and play the long game. The coronavirus crisis is certainly stress testing that to the limit.

Today, the Office for Budget Responsibility put out some extraordinary figures that joined the many extraordinary figures we have had so far. And they make clear just how long a haul it will be to recover economically, let alone medically, from the pandemic.

The cost of the government’s total responses to date to the virus have risen from £103.7bn to £123.2bn, with the furlough scheme among the main reasons. The consequences for borrowing are enormous, with the annual figure equal to 15.2% of the UK economy. The last time it was 15% was in 1945/6 (yes, including VE Day) at the end of World War Two. We all know how long it took to pay off that debt, and this time there’s no Marshall Plan to help us.

Everyone in Whitehall is adjusting to this new normal, as well as to the slow, careful phasing in the government’s plan to exit from lockdown. Transport for London figures today showed that although there are some packed tubes, overall passenger numbers have not gone up much. When and if schools reopen, that too will be gradual (and if local headteachers use their autonomy, the number of schools which do so could be much smaller than anyone expects).

Still, even small progress is seen by ministers as a chance to look forward rather than backwards, removing the focus from previous failures on PPE, care homes and lockdown delays to the here and now.

It’s also worth pointing out that despite state intervention now being the norm, there are some in No.10 who think the crisis has exposed the need to reform the state (and Whitehall) more than ever. Grant Shapps’ line today about removing “bureaucratic bindweed” was a reminder that the Dominic Cummings agenda hasn’t gone away. The government machine still grinds too slowly for him and likeminded advisers.

What we are all of course impatient for is that test-track-trace programme that is seen as the real way to sustainably speed our path out of the Covid fog. There was good news today that at 126,000 a day the number of tests was its highest ever. Similarly, the NHSX app seems to be doing well on the Isle of Wight (our podcast guest this week is local MP Bob Seely).

Most cheering of all was the news that Public Health England had validated an antibody test (developed by Roche) that many hope could be a “game changer”. Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam (whose no-nonsense approach saw him throw some shade at the idea of quarantining all overseas travellers) told the No.10 news conference how important the development was. “I anticipate it will be rapidly rolled out in the days and weeks to come,” he said, with the focus on NHS and on carers to start with.

Some speed at last? Well, not so fast. JVT (as Matt Hancock memorably calls him) stressed it was still unclear how effective the test could be. “You can’t speed up the answer to that,” he said. “It is not automatic, by any means, that these antibodies are going to be lifelong….scientists all round the world have to be patient.” So too do our politicians.

Quote Of The Day

“There is still some capacity there that we need to make available to care homes.”

Health minister Edward Argar admits that Covid-19 tests are still not getting to where they’re needed most.

Thursday Cheat Sheet

Just over a quarter of Covid-19 patients who have died in hospitals in England had diabetes, new figures from NHS England revealed. Some 5,873 (26%) had diabetes, 4,048 (18%) dementia, 3,254 (15%) chronic pulmonary disease and 1,549 (7%) asthma.‌

The Department of Health said a further 428 people had died from Covid 19 in UK hospitals, care homes and in the wider community as of 5pm on Wednesday, bringing the total to 33,614.

New NHS stats revealed that just 916,581 people attended A&E units in England, a 57% drop year on year.

Transport for London (TfL) has secured £1.6bn in emergency funding to keep Tube and bus services running until September after Mayor Sadiq Khan had warned it was close to running out of cash. A £500m loan from the Department for Transport ensured the deal.

Former Labour education secretary David Blunkett has launched a savage attack on teaching unions, accusing them of “working against” the interests of the poorest pupils hit hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown. But Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson vowed to “resist” reopenings in his area if he was not happy with safety.

Tory health minister Nadine Dorries has been reprimanded by Downing Street after promoting false claims online about Keir Starmer’s stance on prosecuting child sex grooming gangs.

Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and national security adviser, had coronavirus at roughly the same time as the PM, but

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This week’s guest is Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely. Hear him chinwag with us about the island’s testing pilot scheme, Keir Starmer’s threat level and more. He also says that coronavirus is China’s ‘Skripal Poisoning Moment’. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom. Search for Commons People wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe.


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