Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak And The Moral War Against Coronavirus

PM and chancellor got it right on the economic emergency. Now the focus turns to the NHS.

Capacity crowd

A friend of mine who works in financial services regularly texts me with the same message: “Boris. Has. No. Plan.” This missive - from someone who happens to be a Tory party member - has covered flooding, the reshuffle, social care, EU trade negotiations, you name it. The thesis is that Boris Johnson has only ever wanted to be PM and everything else is a detail.

Well, today, my pal may finally stop texting me. The prime minister has a plan. Chancellor Rishi Sunak even had a full, formal title for it. “Our Plan for People’s Jobs and Incomes,” he called it, with those all-important capital letters helping to again make him sound even more Gordon Brown than Gordon Brown.

Of course, strictly speaking a ‘plan’ is something you plan in advance. Today’s unprecedented package of direct government support for families is an emergency ventilator for the British economy, forced on a government by the awful circumstance of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

But whatever you call it, the set of measures is truly ginormous and thoroughly welcome. After some crucial collaboration with trade unions, business and devolved nations, the package may go a huge way towards saving many, many jobs. Setting the wages subsidy at up to 80% was sensible, as was the upper limit aimed at those in professions most at risk. Backdating it to March 1 may even persuade some firms to rehire those sacked in recent days.

The changes to the Universal Credit and local housing allowances were overdue but again very welcome. There is more that can be done on higher statutory sick pay levels and helping the self-employed who don’t benefit from the wider largesse. But it’s possible more help could be on its way. This is a government that now listens to even its harshest critics (Unite’s Len McCluskey called the plan “historic, bold and very much necessary”, TUC chief Frances O’Grady said Sunak had shown “real leadership”).

Having been drafted in just a few days, the package was testimony too to the skill and creativity of Treasury and other officials in Whitehall: a reminder that ‘key workers’ in our country include the finest civil service wonks. Not all heroes wear capes, some of them just master spreadsheets and gilts calculations. What looks like a sensible compromise on this summer’s school exams (see below) was further proof of agile administration in a crisis.

None of this would be happening without the murderous threat of coronavirus. And here, the messaging was for once on-point, with the three No.10 lecterns spelling it out starkly: Stay At Home. Protect The NHS. Save Lives.

But what was striking too today was the way Sunak talked about the morality of this crisis. “When this is over, and it will be over, we want to look back on this moment and remember the many small acts of kindness, done by us and to us,” he said. “We want to look back on this time and remember how, in the face of a generation-defining moment, we undertook a collective national effort and we stood together.” Once again, the young Cabinet minister hit the right tone. You could even call it prime ministerial.

As for that collectivism, it may be as much a long-term legacy of coronavirus as our huge new borrowing figures. Johnson has always been a statist in terms of intervention, as long as it was on his own terms. But the role of the state is now going to change over the next year in a way few of us have seen in our lifetimes.

Former senior civil servant Alex Thomas, one of my guests on this weekend’s Week In Westminster on Radio 4 (Saturday 11am folks), put it well when he said that perhaps this crisis will teach us to restore extra capacity in our systems.

For years, the mission of several governments and businesses has been to strip out spare capacity, to slim down, to streamline. Now many are learning the value of having staff in reserve, hospital beds in reserve, ventilators in reserve. A bit of ‘give’, of ‘slack’, in the system may come to be seen not as inefficiency but as sensible planning.

PA

That’s all for the future. Right now, coronavirus is stalking our streets and our hospital wards. It took some prodding, but on the issue of the immorality of those who ignore health advice, the PM today reversed his insouciant stance from earlier this week. “You’re not only putting your own life and the lives of your family at risk, you’re endangering the community and you’re making it more difficult to protect the NHS and save lives,” he said. Amen to that.

Those words have all the more resonance amid reports that London hospitals have already reached full capacity for intensive care beds. As one NHS chief told the Health Service Journal: “Given we’re in the low foothills of this virus, this is f***ing petrifying.”

Today, the UK death toll rose to 177, while newly released scientific research showed that 44% of those over-80 who get the virus will end up hospitalised. Italy is showing that even younger people are now getting severe symptoms, and there are awful reports of medical staff deaths.

The PM and his chancellor deserve credit for getting the economic rescue broadly right today. They proved that consensus and expertise are no longer dirty words. Perhaps the crisis can even force everyone to hammer out a social care policy over time too. Right now, both Tories and Labour alike will be desperately hoping the funding squeeze on the NHS since 2010 has not cost lives.

And the real focus will shift to the health service. Many will be hoping that it has been given enough breathing space in recent weeks to build its capacity to fend off the coming onslaught. On Monday, 1.4m people with serious medical conditions will receive texts or letters warning them to go into quarantine for 12 weeks. The thoughts of many will now be with those key workers - from health staff to broadband engineers, from social care workers to teachers - who will keep the country alive.

Quote Of The Day

“Today I can announce for the first time in our history the Government is going to step in and pay people’s wages.”

‌Chancellor Rishi Sunak

Friday Cheat Sheet

All pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms, leisure centres, nightclubs, theatres and cinemas (deep breath) and bingo halls, spas, casinos, betting shops, museums & galleries must close tonight. The shutdown will be reviewed in 14 days.

The government will pay up to 80% of the wages of workers up to £2,500 per month in a bid to persuade firms not to make redundancies. Three months’ worth of VAT payments for firms will be deferred, and an extra £6bn given to the welfare system to help the low paid.

Social distancing will be needed for “at least half of the year” to stop hospital intensive care units being overwhelmed, newly published scientific advice to ministers revealed.

Teachers will grade their own pupils for A level and GCSE to produce results this July. Exam boards will combine teachers’ judgment with other data to calculate a final grade. Pupils will be able to take exams in September if they are unhappy with the results.

Eton College is offering to take in five-to-13-year-old children of nurses, police and other key workers, as well as the most vulnerable pupils from its local area, from Monday.

More than 65,000 retired doctors and nurses in England and Wales are being sent letters asking them to re-register to help the NHS.

David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, has self-isolated following mild symptoms of coronavirus. His EU counterpart Michel Barnier has tested positive for the virus already

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