Why Boris Johnson’s government is failing on both Covid-19 and the economy

The UK has a public health strategy based around suppressing the virus and an economic strategy based on letting it spread. 

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Households have been banned from meeting in any indoor social setting in Merseyside, Warrington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, meaning at least 16.6 million people across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are under some form of lockdown. And while the R rate has fallen slightly, it remains above one, with the government warning that the novel coronavirus is once again out of control. 

It further exposes that the government increasingly has a public health strategy based around eliminating or at least suppressing the virus, and an economic strategy based around letting Covid-19 pass through the population. The reality of these lockdowns is that countless pubs, bars and restaurants and the jobs of the people who work in them across the United Kingdom have become “non-viable”. Yet while there are good reasons to believe that homeworking will persist at significantly greater levels than it did pre-pandemic, there are no good reasons to believe that people in Merseyside will be less inclined to go out for a drink or dinner than people in Greater London or Cornwall. 

That reflects the divide between the people in charge: we have a Health Secretary who is much more worried about the virus than the cost of the economic support measures, a Chancellor who is much more worried about the economic cost of further lockdowns, and a Prime Minister who hasn’t really made a choice between those options. 

The problem is that this leads to the UK doing both strategies badly. As Anoosh explains, the main reason for the big gap between people saying they intend to self-isolate and actually doing so is economic: people are returning to work because they can’t afford not to. That’s the inevitable result of a government that has an economic strategy designed around the idea that we need to live with coronavirus, and a health strategy based on the idea we should hide from it: the UK spends huge sums of money, but not in a way that means people can actually afford to self-isolate.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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