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Boris Johnson still isn’t facing up to the economic challenge of Covid-19

Even after the lockdown is ended, anti-viral measures will hinder living standards.

By Stephen Bush

From today, people in England who test positive for the novel coronavirus will be asked to provide a list of everyone they have met for longer than 15 minutes, who will then receive a text or a phone call  telling them to self-isolate for 14 days.

It is a programme that is significantly less invasive, contains a far lower degree of compulsion and is much lower tech than the test and trace programmes being used successfully in south-east Asia. 

Will it achieve significantly less successful results? We don’t know. It closely resembles NHS England’s contact tracing for sexually transmitted infections, which mostly works pretty well, and there is, one assumes, a lower taboo in revealing that you may have passed on the novel coronavirus than that you’ve given them crabs. 

What we can say with a far greater degree of certainty is that 14 days of self-isolation is a pretty big ask economically for those who can’t work at home – statutory sick pay is not, at its current level, going to cover a fortnight of lost earnings for most people, and many casual workers aren’t covered by it in any case. 

Equally importantly, that people will intermittently be having to self-isolate will also mean they aren’t out and about, at bars, at restaurants or in garden centres. Even if Boris Johnson’s optimism about reopening bars in July proves to be well-founded, they will be operating not only at reduced capacity, but in a situation where local custom may intermittently be suddenly and unexpectedly curtailed – yet, if self-isolation is going to work, they will also be spending more on sick pay. 

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These are the tricky economic challenges of easing the lockdown. Johnson struggled with almost every question from select committee chairs at the liaison committee yesterday, and while it was Meg Hillier’s short, sharp factual question about Dominic Cummings that will generate headlines, the most revealing in terms of the challenge ahead were the questions on economic and business policy from the Conservatives’ Mel Stride and Labour’s Darren Jones, and a question that was almost an aside from the committee’s chair Bernard Jenkin: that there is, inevitably, an economic cost to health checks and quarantines at airports, however necessary they may be to stopping the spread of the disease.

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Johnson’s inability to truly address or even to grasp those questions seem to reflect a mentality in parts of the government that the economic challenge is as simple as legally ending the lockdown. But the anti-viral measures in place mean that a prolonged and multi-faceted economic challenge lies ahead: even if England’s contact-tracing programme is up to scratch.