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22 January 2021

How the UK’s Covid-19 strategy is being driven by Rishi Sunak’s reluctance to spend

The Chancellor’s approach means the government is unlikely to fund a £500 payment for those who test positive. 

By Stephen Bush

Pick a number, as long as it’s round! The government has announced that people in England attending parties of more than 15 will face individual fines of £800, escalating for repeat offences. 

Of course, while there is some rule-breaking, the evidence continues to show that most people are living within the rules – and, equally importantly, that the state’s ability to detect or enforce most rule breaches is limited. Unless you do something incredibly egregiously stupid and visibly against the rules – such as this case here in Hackney in east London, in which a wedding with more than 400 guests had to be broken up by police – you are likely to be able to break the rules on indoor gatherings with relative impunity.

[see also: Why the government is wrong to blame the public for the spread of coronavirus]

That’s why the government should focus on what legitimate economic activity it can shut down – and the fact that 84 per cent of people who are told to self-isolate, don’t do so due to lack of funds. 

The big shared failure across western Europe has been the reluctance – the near refusal, in fact – to invest seriously in central quarantine and properly funded isolation, without which no test-and-trace system can function effectively. Add to that the distinct British failure of our low rate of statutory sick pay and you have a recipe for disaster.

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​​​​​​Another round figure is now being floated in the press, a £500 payment for anyone who tests positive for Covid-19. One attraction of this idea for the Conservative Party is that special, coronavirus-related schemes are easy to escape from after the crisis is over. Rishi Sunak has spent most of the crisis trying to exit from the measures he introduced last March and he has been reluctant to do more. That reluctance is one reason why the £500 wheeze is attracting criticism from within government.

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[see also: Why Rishi Sunak can’t escape blame for the Covid-19 crisis]

That underpins, too, the government’s reluctance to close down further businesses: because the Chancellor does not want to pay out further compensation (setting aside the fact that the sums paid are insufficient to keep large parts of hospitality and other industries alive).

So in the meantime, we have a big round number in the shape of that £800 fine. The problem is that while the fine gives the government something to talk about, it won’t do much to make the fight against the coronavirus any more effective.