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17 March 2020

Why the government must announce a far larger economic stimulus to fight coronavirus

To maintain suppression measures for months, businesses and individuals need much greater financial support.

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom will be in near-lockdown for an indefinite period in response to Covid-19. All Brits have been told to avoid non-essential social contact, while the over-70s, the pregnant and those with pre-existing conditions have been urged to enter self-isolation.

This lucid and easy to read paper from Imperial College lays out the change in assumptions that saw the British government throw out its previous approach to fighting the crisis. But one thing hasn’t changed: while the British government no longer believes that it is possible to flatten the outbreak’s spread in a way that would maintain the ability of the NHS to fight the disease, the government’s advisers still believe that suppressing the disease will require suppression measures that go on for months – perhaps for more than a year.

That means that a far bigger economic stimulus is required than the one unveiled by Rishi Sunak in his budget. Sunak sensibly didn’t opt to create a new welfare benefit but to expand the generosity of an old one – but he needs to go much further, both in reducing the waiting time for Universal Credit, increasing statutory sick pay and providing support for all businesses, large and small. 

The most alarming piece of British economic data to have emerged about this crisis so far is from Transport for London: while passenger numbers have fallen on both the bus and the Tube, they have fallen close to half as much on the bus. That isn’t because people who take the bus to work are more likely to be healthy than those who use the Tube – it’s that you are more likely to be well-off if you use the Tube than the bus, and you are more likely to have the economic security to take time off or work from home.

The immediate challenge for Sunak when he announces further measures today is: has he done enough to guarantee that everyone who needs to stay home does? And the long-term challenge is: has he done enough to keep the economy in cryogenic suspension while the country fights coronavirus? Denmark’s level of financial aid to businesses and workers shows the right level of ambition, as does Emmanuel Macron’s pledge that no business will be allowed to fail during the crisis. The British government’s challenge is to show that it can similarly rise to the moment.

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