The writer is the author of ‘Extra Time: Ten Lessons for an Ageing World’
Coronavirus has forced Boris Johnson’s UK government out of its adolescent phase and into the urgent business of governing. With the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, pledging a fiscal stimulus on a scale not seen since 1992, and the prime minister broadcasting a sober message on the virus, the ill-tempered weeks of spats and bullying have been replaced by something much more professional.
Mr Sunak was made for this moment, which required a head boy earnestness coupled with the confident delivery of a dapper financier. In his Budget, he flung money at a grateful population as if he’d done the job for years, instead of weeks. The careful orchestration of fiscal and monetary policy, notably lacking in the US where I write this, should help to stem panic. At moments of acute uncertainty, confidence counts. Mr Sunak projected it.
Some had expected a fly-by-night or a minimalist Budget. But the overriding impression, as Mr Sunak marched calmly through the emergency health and hardship funds, and even levelled up literally with a pledge on potholes, was that this was joined-up thinking. You felt, dare I say it, that the hoo-ha a few weeks ago about Nos 10 and 11 sharing special advisers was misplaced. In a crisis, when events move rapidly, co-ordination means clear messaging externally and real alignment inside.
Nevertheless, many of the sensible measures to shore up livelihoods — faster access to benefits, extending sick pay, removing the minimum floor for universal credit — will require Whitehall to deliver. Call centres must be staffed, forms dispatched, computer systems synchronised. All in the shadow of a virus that might, as Mr Sunak asserted in the most shocking statistic in a Budget of startling figures, leave a fifth of the workforce sick at any time. To save small businesses and tide families over will demand a level of efficiency that is not, as Dominic Cummings has pointed out, always the hallmark of the British state. Mr Johnson’s senior adviser must stop the civil servant bashing now, although his ability to give meticulous attention to detail may come in handy.
Mr Sunak’s promise to spend whatever it takes on the NHS was breathtaking but right. Unless the public health response is effective, nothing else works. Still, funds must be directed to where they are needed most.
Nursing shortages remain a real challenge, which will worsen as infection spreads. There also needs to be a huge expansion of intensive care capacity, if doctors are not to be forced into making life or death decisions. The NHS is not always good at listening to frontline staff and responding rapidly (not least because, far from being a monolith, it is a myriad of different organisations). But in the next few weeks, it must.
The same concerns apply in triplicate to the £600bn “prosperity plan”, which dwarfs the £12bn package for coronavirus. It’s easy to throw money around. It’s harder to spend it well. The boost to research and development investment makes sense, as does spending on skills, and some of the new infrastructure. But to be sustainable, government cash must also unlock private-sector money. Towards the end of Mr Sunak’s speech, despite its pitch-perfect delivery, some announcements started to sound random — as if departments had opened their desks and gleefully unearthed old chestnuts, such as widening the A303.
A fiscal conservative by nature, Mr Sunak is sticking for now to the government’s fiscal rules. This was an issue that led to the resignation of Sajid Javid, his predecessor. For now, there is at least a pretence that controlling deficits matters. This is important as it is not a systemic financial crisis we face, but a pandemic that will eventually fade. Short-term borrowing to survive the crisis should not turn into a permanent habit.
Before the virus struck, the UK economy was slowing, Brexit negotiations loomed and trade talks looked sticky. Now there is an external justification for low growth, an excuse to splurge cash and a uniting moment. No 10 has been reluctant to put up ministers to talk to the press about Brexit in any detail. Now it can wheel out the chief medical officer and secretary of state for health to speak capably about virus containment. But it must also accept that the economy needs a grown-up approach to trade talks, not a no-deal Brexit.
Administrations can be made or broken by the unexpected. The vacillations of US President Donald Trump on the virus, and reports of chaos about testing, have made his re-election suddenly look less likely. Outside the New York public library, I found an anxious man holding up a home-made sign. “To beat coronavirus,” it said, “we must all work together and listen to what the experts are telling us”. What is it you want people to do differently? I asked. “Maintain social distance,” he yelled at the Fifth Avenue shoppers. “They’re all walking around like it’s eternal spring. And the authorities don’t even seem to know what season it is.”
In pledging to underwrite the corona winter, and offering a glimpse of possible summer beyond, the UK government has taken the first steps in gripping this crisis and projecting confidence. Now, it must demonstrate competence. This virus is deadly. Uncertainty is gripping. There is no greater test.
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