“Crises are not in the habit of forming queues”

Planning, investing in carers and international cooperation are vital but lacking in this crisis says Hugh Gault

… as one of Harold Wilson’s lesser known aphorisms put it.1

However, just because the latest crisis has pushed the earlier ones off the front pages, it doesn’t mean they have gone away. Indeed, the panic response to Covid-19 and the failure of any co-ordinated international response despite the World Health Organisation’s pleas may well demonstrate how dependent on the EU the UK has been under a succession of weak Tory PMs since 2010. This international co-ordination was precisely the approach Gordon Brown was advocating in his Guardian article on 14 March, the approach that he led in response to the banking crash of 2007/08. President Obama and the EU Central Bank followed suit, whereas Cameron and Osborne reversed it in 2010 and chose insular austerity instead.

The absence of a co-ordinated response was apparent on the island of Ireland, where schools north of the border remained open for over a week after the Republic had shut them down. The cynic might say that this is because the south values people before the economy, and the latter would undoubtedly suffer if people had to stay at home to look after their children. Others might say it was to help healthcare workers remain at work in Northern Ireland, where there are certainly huge vacancies in a creaking service. To people who live there, however, on whichever side of the border and whatever their political allegiance, the lack of co-ordination must be at least confusing and possibly horrifying.

This was true of the approach to Brexit too of course. The implication of a land border in Ireland between the EU and the UK was an afterthought and the Tory solution of a border down the Irish Sea, together with Sinn Féin’s success in the recent general election in the Republic, must make a united Ireland more likely. The threat to the UK union is clear and the pressure in Scotland for independence may well increase too. What is not clear as yet is the impact that Covid-19 may have on the trade talks timetable and the likelihood of ‘No Deal’ if the government continues to adhere stubbornly and absurdly to the December 2020 deadline. In whose interests is this?

HS2 still looks a waste of money, especially if it never gets past Birmingham. Transport links in the north need upgrading now not in twenty years time, but this is less likely if, as the Oakervee review suggests, £106bn is spent on the over-engineered vanity project that is HS2. Having lost the argument over the supposed need to shave a few minutes off journey times – and it would always be a few minutes in a country as small as the UK – attention has now turned to HS2’s role in increasing capacity. Working from home and video-conferencing during the Covid-19 crisis may demonstrate that projections are out of date here too. Lengthening platforms and removing first class seats would be cheaper ways of improving capacity anyway (as Oakervee concedes).

The budget in early March illustrated, if any lingering doubt remained, that austerity had been unnecessary and an ideological choice. Not only was austerity over, it was reversed. Wasted years and constricted lives paying back debts that, as one of the largest economies in the world, we could have taken in our stride. The budget was welcomed for its £600bn capital investment, a scale of future-proofing not seen since Victorian times. However, there was no mention of how to pay for it other than through loans and therefore something that our grandchildren may have to cope with rather than us.

Nor was there any mention of the much vaunted social care plan promised by Johnson in the Tory leadership hustings last year. This has been a national disgrace for much of the twenty-first century and one that may soon become starker.

There may be some beneficial if unintended consequences of coronavirus though. Firstly, it may seal Trump’s fate in the elections. He first said the virus was a Democratic ruse and only paid attention when stock markets fell. He must be worth much less now – so we can look forward to ‘Junk Trump’ in every sense. Secondly, if only temporarily, climate change may slow down as industry is put on hold. Heathrow’s third runway looks even less likely now than it did after the court judgement that environmental implications had not been given sufficient weight.

The real opportunity, however, is to reconsider our values and beliefs. What should matter most, not just when times are hard, are people rather than profits. The economist Jim O’Neill has called for ‘quantitative easing for people’. One of the implications is that, if people’s needs are to be met, Universal Credit should be paid from day one, not after a totally unrealistic five-week wait. After all, if the government can do this almost instantly for Statutory Sick Pay for those in work, how much more critical is it for those dependent on benefits? Secondly, effective and timely social care is vital for older and disabled people, and therefore for all of us. The NHS too depends on it to function properly and the absence of any plan other than to rely on carers and volunteers remains a scandal. Thirdly, free market capitalism has been shown up. The pursuit of unregulated and ever-increasing profit is ultimately in nobody’s interest. Fourthly, we should focus on the distinction between longer term gains, which the state should be concerned with, and the shorter time horizon of immediate pay-offs that investors concentrate on. To characterise the extremes: the social state is concerned with lasting development that will benefit future generations as well as the current one, whereas private sector capitalism is thinking primarily of the here-and-now, or at best of an individual lifetime only.

1. Harold Wilson, ‘Final Term: The Labour Government 1974-1976’, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979, p20

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