Boris Johnson’s long-awaited social care plans have been delayed until the autumn after he and key cabinet ministers were forced to self-isolate for Covid.
Negotiations between the prime minister, health secretary Sajid Javid and chancellor Rishi Sunak over the shape of a deal had progressed so well that an announcement was close to being announced to parliament this week.
But with Javid testing positive for coronavirus at the weekend, and the PM and Sunak having to quarantine, the final stage of the talks has been dramatically disrupted and a decision has been taken to hold off until later this year.
Downing Street refused to deny that a 1% rise in national insurance (NI) could be used to fund the expected £10bn annual cost of the plan, even though any such tax hike would be in breach of the Tory manifesto pledge in 2019.
Critics lined up to warn that increasing national insurance would be doubly unfair on younger workers because pensioners do not pay the tax and because the cash raised would be spent on the older age group.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said he would not engage with “continued speculation” about the possible NI rise. “The process for agreeing our proposals is still ongoing. We will set that out before the end of the year,” he said.
Javid and Johnson met in person last Friday in Downing Street but the following morning the health secretary tested positive and the PM and chancellor were subsequently forced to go into isolation as they were “close contacts” of their colleague.
Johnson is quarantining in his country residence in Chequers, Sunak is at home in his Downing Street flat. Javid has also been forced to work from home.
Given that any major announcement on social care would require an update to parliament, neither the PM nor his cabinet colleagues will be able to physically address the Commons now before it rises for its summer break this Thursday.
Senior government sources said that the social care plans were “well progressed” and there had been hopes of getting an agreement over the line this week. Although ministers keep in touch via Zoom and the phone, the forced isolation of the three key players “hasn’t helped” with getting a final deal, they added.
Any rise in national insurance could spark a backlash among some Tory MPs, whose votes would be vital in passing the measure if Labour opted to oppose the funding plan. The last Conservative manifesto explicitly ruled out rises in NI and income tax.
Labour’s shadow treasury minister Pat McFadden warned on Tuesday that his party’s test would be whether the plan was “fair to people of all ages, and all income groups”.
Torsten Bell, of the Resolution Foundation think tank, said the NI increase was a “terrible idea”, declaring “it’s a tax disproportionately loaded onto younger people and lower-paid workers (compared to a fairer rise in income tax) who have borne the brunt of this recession”.
Paul Johnson, the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told The Times: “Funding social care just from National Insurance would be very inequitable.
“It would be a continuation of a long-term policy of hitting those of working age while protecting pensioners even for something designed to benefit people well over pension age. It’s a question of fairness.”
Nearly two years ago, when he took office for the first time, Boris Johnson said on the steps of Downing Street that he would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.
Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall said: “After more than a decade in power – and two years after the Prime Minister made a clear promise on the steps of Downing Street, we are still no closer to seeing a plan to ‘fix the crisis in social care.’
“Every day the government delays their plans for fixing the crisis in social care is another day that staff don’t get the pay and training they deserve, another day that thousands of people go without the basic help they need, to do things like get up, washed, dressed and fed, and another day that families are pushed to breaking point.”