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18 March 2020

How should we cover coronavirus?

These are the questions on austerity, policy changes, devolution and Brexit that should underpin our domestic political coverage of the crisis. 

By Stephen Bush

What does the Covid-19 outbreak mean for politics, and how should we cover it?

As far as the political team’s coverage is concerned, these are the questions I think should direct our analysis and reporting. I’ve also provided a sense of my thinking on these questions at the moment, because I’m a big believer that the most effective way to learn from your biases and mistakes is to a) write them down so you can’t squirrel out of them later and b) to be as transparent as possible about your thinking and processes so that you can crowdsource criticism and feedback from as wide a group of people as possible.

Has austerity made it harder for the government to tackle the coronavirus outbreak?

Although there have been a number of rhetorical retreats from it since 2016, the policy of successive Conservative governments since 2010 has been to close the deficit and reduce the United Kingdom’s debt pile through public spending cuts. Though there have been some tax rises – not least to VAT – since 2010, the government has largely eschewed taxation in favour of reductions in spending.

(We shouldn’t forget, however, that tax rises, particularly in a downturn, are themselves a form of austerity. While hiking VAT is preferable to cutting in-work benefits as far as poverty reduction goes, both are measures that hit the lowest-paid hardest.)

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Has a decade of spending restraint left the United Kingdom worse equipped to fight this pandemic than it would have been in 2010? I use the phrase “this pandemic” deliberately: one of the conscious political decisions made by David Cameron and George Osborne was to target cuts where they wouldn’t be noticed, which incentivises departments to pare back areas such as crisis readiness across the board, because in normal times there are precisely zero votes in crisis readiness.

I think that the decision to have a very tight fiscal policy from 2010 was the wrong one and has had a number of destructive consequences. But I’m not, at present, convinced that it has a particular bearing on the United Kingdom’s ability to weather this pandemic from a medical perspective. Ultimately, there is no healthcare system in the world that would not be capsized by a fifth of its citizens having to use it all at once, whatever its funding level.

The NHS has a very low level of spare bed capacity – but the NHS always has a very low level of spare bed capacity. That is a consequence of how the NHS is funded and run, not how much the NHS is funded.

Where I think austerity could have an effect is on mitigation and recovery methods: the numbers of police, as well as serving and reserve members of the armed forces, have all fallen over the past decade. Local authorities have increasingly cut all but their statutory responsibilities and are not well-placed to pick up the slack. That, I think, is where we will see knock-on effects from austerity.

My instinct, however, is that the bigger questions for this government will be about the operational changes made since 2010 and how they impact on the way the government responds. Which brings us to what I think the next big question is:

Have policy changes since 2010 made it harder for the British government to tackle Covid-19?

I know what you’re thinking: how is this question different from the first? Well, let’s take Universal Credit. The five-week wait to receive your first benefit payment isn’t a cut: the government ends up spending the same amount of money over the same period, it’s just you have to go without it for longer. This is not a cut but a change.

It’s not, to be frank, clear to me what the argument for not simply paying people upfront is when they are entering self-isolation or having their hours cut unexpectedly. The rationale behind this delay is to stimulate “being in work”. I think there are a number of problems here, not least that a) a lot of low-paid work isn’t paid in monthly arrears but in weekly or even daily payments and b) a lot of people have to take out bridging loans from friends and family if they are lucky, or from payday lenders if they are unlucky, when they start work.

But regardless of whether the five-week wait is a good idea in normal times, it is patently inadequate if your aim is to encourage people to self-isolate the second they have a fever or a cough. I think policy changes in this area are going to be a lot more significant to how the government can respond to the crisis than spending cuts.

We also have the first major public health crisis since the 2012 changes to the NHS in England, which took operational control from the secretary of state and vested it in NHS England, and split public health matters into Public Health England. We now have four very different models of NHS provision across the United Kingdom: I don’t know which will perform the best (and in the worst case scenario they may all simply be overwhelmed) but it feels to me unlikely that they will all perform equally well.

Is the government’s mobilisation of wider society and the private sector to combat the crisis sufficient?

For a variety of reasons – the end of the Second World War, the habits and convenience of historians, the folk memory of the 1945 election in the Labour Party – we tend to regard 1945 as a big breach in British public policy. In reality, in many ways, the 1945-51 state built on, and in some cases shrunk, the reach of the state that Labour politicians in coalition with Conservatives and Liberals built from 1940 onwards.

I think of that whenever I see a politician talking about “urging” companies to do this or that. We have a pretty good test case in the limitations of exhortation in public policy at the moment: the removal of potentially deadly cladding from British tower blocks.

Among local authorities, where the government has essentially compelled councils to do so, deadly cladding is being removed. In privately held blocks, where the government has for the most part written a lot of letters – though opposition and government backbenchers, such as Labour’s Justin Madders and the Conservatives’ Bob Neill have been pressing repeatedly and for a long time for serious action – while a number of scrupulous companies have removed their cladding, a number of others have not, or blameless leaseholders have been left facing financial ruin in order to remove their cladding.

My feeling is that any government “urging” companies to produce more ventilators or hand sanitiser will not be sufficient to the moment, and that one of the biggest attitudinal and ideological humps the Conservatives will have to get over will be moving from exhortation to legal guarantees.

What policy levers should national and devolved governments pull to tackle the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, and how effectively are they doing so?

I’m instinctively sceptical of new policy levers, because every time you create a new lever you have to struggle with implementation. My general feeling is that the government is better off radically expanding the generosity and eligibility of existing loans and grants to businesses and of sick pay and other benefits to workers, employed and self-employed, rather than inventing a new one.

So I broadly think that Rishi Sunak has the right idea as far as the direction of travel is concerned so far, while agreeing with the near-universal consensus among economists that neither of his levers – tax relief and grants to businesses, more generous welfare for workers – were pulled with sufficient vigour, and that the government seems to be struggling to process or manage the needs of the self-employed or other gig economy workers at the moment.

I think we should be concerned about any drift into what you might call “one neat trickism”: the former Conservative MP Rob Wilson, who lost his seat in 2017, gave a good example of what not to do, proposing that every household be paid £1,000 (not enough either as a single or a monthly payment) and that the government embark on a swathe of emergency nationalisations (it is frankly unclear what Covid-19 related problem this would solve: the issue is making sure that people are able to self-isolate without fear of the economic consequences, and that when the crisis is over there is still an economy. You still need to pay waiters and restaurant owners to be able to do that if necessary, whether or not the government nationalises The Good Egg or not.)

How is devolution handling its first major public health crisis?

This isn’t just the biggest public health crisis since the early days of HIV-AIDS but the first major public health crisis since the advent of devolution in the United Kingdom. We have four different models of providing free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare, and nine governing parties. Northern Ireland is run by five parties in the Stormont Executive. Wales is run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. Scotland is run by the SNP as a minority administration. And the national government in Westminster, which also acts de facto as the devolved government in England, has a Conservative-majority government.

So the potential for disunity is high. Happily thus far, however, the four governments are working together fairly well. National government has timed its announcements to facilitate statements by devolved governments – and there has been a huge willingness to both do slightly different things and to minimise political conflict. There was a Twitter row over one of Nicola Sturgeon’s several press conferences before Boris Johnson’s which, bluntly, seemed to happen because some English journalists happened to notice that day. But other than that devolution is, at present, holding up fine.

“Holding up fine” does not mean “doing the same things”. The health service in Northern Ireland includes social care. The NHS in Scotland, run by the secretary of state, is the institution that most closely resembles the pre-2012 NHS in England. The NHS in Wales has been run differently from the NHS in England since 1999 and the difference is now even wider. That holds across schools and a swathe of other areas: while it is possible that doing exactly the same things in all four kingdoms is the right idea, it’s probably not that likely.

What are the implications for the Brexit negotiations?

I don’t think that any responsible government would take the UK out of the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU until the coronavirus crisis is over – and that may not be for years.

Of course, this raises the bigger question of what happens if we have an irresponsible government, or if we have a responsible government whose Brexit strategy is predicated on using the 31 December cliff-edge as a negotiating aid, whether with the EU, or with parliament, and what that means for their approach if they have to give up that asset.

Are we entering a new age of pandemics and/or will social distancing and other similar draconian measures become the new normal?

This is unknowable, but I include it for a number of reasons. The first is that while my advice to every individual is to act as if tomorrow a researcher in some lab will discover that cucumber sandwiches double as a Covid-19 vaccine, a responsible government ought to assume that the scenario sketched out in that Imperial College paper – that we will be engaging in social distancing and other measures for more than a year, perhaps longer still – is correct and should therefore have two economic priorities.

The first is to preserve the economy in cryogenic suspension, ensuring that all households can focus on combating the disease rather than making ends meet, and the second is to facilitate the transition to a world where prolonged periods of social distancing become more bearable for everyone.

That means measures like the ones unveiled by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, to make it easier for restaurants to offer delivery and takeaway. That means stronger social protections to ensure that people who work in supply chains, deliveries and food have the security to self-isolate as needed, and we all have the security of knowing everyone in the UK is able to observe the necessary anti-viral measures.

And it means doing so in a way that can command enduring consent over an indefinite period. That’s the test we should apply to everything this government and governments around the world are doing.

I also ask it because of the importance of the two follow-up questions, which are thornier still:

If yes, what does that mean for our economic model?

And, most importantly of all:

What is the correct level of balance, and what type of safeguards should we have, between appropriate levels of government power to tackle the public health challenge and the continuing health of both British and global democracy?