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16 March 2020

How can the British government help ease the stress of coronavirus?

Boris Johnson will today move to daily press conferences in a bid to bring more clarity, but communication is not the only area in which the government must improve. 

By Stephen Bush

South Africa and Kenya have imposed drastic restrictions in both internal and external movement, while a slew of US cities have imposed curbs on leisure activities and movement to tackle Covid-19.

In France, the first round of the local elections saw turnout fall by 20 points to 44 per cent of the vote, a record low, with the second round likely to be cancelled. How long can the British government continue its distinct approach to tackling the pandemic?

As I explained last week, the British government believes that the measures that have all but eliminated the pandemic in south-east Asian democracies cannot be maintained and that stories about its elimination will inevitably give way to stories about its recurrence.

Is the UK right? Experts are divided – our regular medical columnist Phil Whitaker sets out his view in a measured piece here – and just as important as the debate among medical experts over the government’s clinical response is the largely neglected one about the government’s political and economic one. Is the British government going about its strategy in the most effective way?

There’s the media half of the government’s response; Boris Johnson will today move to daily press conferences in a bid to bring more clarity. This comes after a weekend in which reports circulated that the over-70s will be quarantined for four months and a leaked Public Health England memo suggested that the crisis will continue for the best part of the year.

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But while communication is one important area in which the government must improve, it is not the only one. The government’s strategy is based on the idea that people will self-isolate, and it has pulled two economic levers to facilitate that. The first is a package of tax relief and crisis loans for small and medium-sized enterprises, the second is a reduction of the barriers to Universal Credit for workers.

Are they enough? The levers are the right ones but the measures themselves might need beefing up if they’re going to work. That there are still plenty of stories about people who feel unable to enter quarantine shows that more needs to be done. One simple quick win is to end the five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment for the length of the crisis. If you’re experiencing symptoms and wondering about whether you weather not going in for your shift today then being able to get your UC payment in five weeks’ time is no help to anybody – not to you, and not to your co-workers and neighbours either.

The question of “is the government’s approach to tackling the crisis being done effectively” is more urgent than “is the government’s approach right?” because the answer to the latter is at this stage inherently unknowable – and it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is if it is being poorly delivered.