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30 September 2020

Leader: Rebuilding national resilience

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the British state after a decade of disastrous austerity. 

By New Statesman

The Covid-19 crisis never ended, it was merely paused. In the United Kingdom, the fall in cases over the summer disguised the reality that a second wave was inevitable. Today, we are confronted by the Ballardian spectacle of university students confined to their halls of residence, mass street parties at 10pm after the enforced closure of pubs, and ministers struggling to explain whether casual sex is permitted. What explains this surreal tableau?

The government – and most obviously the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – has never appeared equal to the challenge posed by the pandemic. It took the UK eight days after its tenth Covid-19 death to cancel public events and close most schools – longer than any other major country bar Iran. By this time, the virus was spreading with lethal speed.

In the absence of a vaccine, health experts emphasised, only a mass test and trace system would allow some semblance of normality. But ministers have failed to deliver this. Demand for Covid-19 tests is exceeding capacity by three to four times, according to the test-and-trace head Dido Harding, and almost 90 per cent of tests in England are failing to meet the 24-hour turnaround target. Students at Manchester Metropolitan University who were instructed to quarantine were not permitted to travel to their local testing centre.

Such failures have been exacerbated by the bombast of Mr Johnson, who promised a “world-beating” testing programme, just as he promised an “oven-ready” Brexit deal. But they cannot be attributed to him alone. The pandemic has exposed the fragility and defects of the British state.

In a new foreword to the paperback edition of his memoirs, David Cameron contends that the austerity his government imposed left the UK better prepared for the pandemic: “Covid-19 was the rainy day we had been saving for.” This is nonsense. Far from building resilience, austerity enfeebled the state. Reserves for public health spending in England, for instance, fell by 30 per cent from 2015 to 2019, a period during which the prevalence of conditions such as diabetes and obesity rose. Local authorities, which in less centralised countries have made a dynamic response to the pandemic, have lost an average of 60p in every pound of government grants since 2010. Cuts to schools left them ill-prepared for Covid-19 by increasing class sizes and making social distancing far harder.

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Welfare cuts, which have totalled £30bn since 2010, have left millions of people with few or no savings to draw on in the event of unemployment or enforced self-isolation.  Having issued the draconian threat of a £10,000 fine for breaching self-isolation rules, the risk for the government is that the financially imperilled simply avoid being tested at all. Universal Credit claimants, meanwhile, still have to wait five weeks for their first payment, contributing to a dramatic rise in food bank usage during the pandemic (year-on-year demand increased by 89 per cent in April).

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The boosterish Mr Johnson, in common with his scientific advisers, continues to herald the promised vaccine as a panacea. But scepticism is warranted: experts have warned that the mass rollout of a vaccine could be delayed by up to two years because of a lack of essential supply chain items. It would be reckless to assume that the production and distribution of any vaccine will be a model of efficiency under this struggling government.

The second phase of the Covid-19 crisis confirms what was obvious from the start: there will be no easy return to normality. We have entered a new era and it will necessitate a more interventionist and strategic state, higher levels of government borrowing and, eventually, increased taxes on wealth and assets.

Mr Johnson, who on 29 September issued an uncharacteristic apology for misdescribing the north-east’s lockdown rules, becomes ever more farcical by the week. But no one should believe that his replacement as prime minister alone would resolve the United Kingdom’s deep-rooted problems. Rebuilding national resilience in the face of crisis will be the work of the next decade. 

This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union