A few days into 2021, and a large European country imposed yet another lockdown on its weary public. The leader of the governing rightwing party held out hopes for a mass vaccination programme, but insisted that in the meantime, non-essential shops and services must close and school pupils study from home. Not the UK, but Germany. Not Boris Johnson, but Angela Merkel. Our overwhelmingly parochial political debate nearly always ignores how countries very similar to our own can take far more imaginative and helpful measures. One of the first moves Chancellor Merkel announced this week was an extra 10 days’ leave for parents to look after children – double that for single parents. As policymaking, it is a modest but useful step. As politics, it is smart. And as an attempt to gain beleaguered families’ trust and their acceptance of the inevitable difficulties to come, it is deft.
Compare that with the tin-eared response from London’s ministers. The day after Mr Johnson’s imposition of a third lockdown, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled a £4bn package of one-off grants for retail, hospitality and leisure companies. If your firm does the laundry for a big leisure centre or supplies crockery to cafes, you will have to jostle with every other business for a part of a far smaller £594m contingency fund. All the new support is aimed at businesses rather than their workers. For anything else, the Treasury will wait until its March budget.
The best that can be said for this is that it is better than nothing. But it shows no grasp of how businesses make decisions and no appreciation of the sacrifices being made by households across the UK. Most of all, for a professional and promising politician, it shows scarcely any political nous.
What is unfolding this week is a public health emergency that on some measures is already more acute than the one that hit the UK last March. To try and contain it, the government has locked down the country. Those two factors in themselves as good as guarantee that the UK will go into another recession. Right now, a range of businesses are watching their cash flow dry up all over again. For many small and mid-sized firms, their main recourse will be applying for a government loan. Some can’t wait for the government to extend support and will lay off workers or shut up shop entirely. These closures, and those redundancies, will be partly the fault of Mr Sunak.
Rather than pause and prevaricate, as the chancellor has done throughout this crisis, he should do three things immediately. First, confirm that the support for workers and businesses will carry on at least until the autumn statement. Second, fix the gaping holes in his support for the self-employed and those on benefits. And finally, sort out what is one of the stingiest state sick pay schemes in Europe. Do all that, Mr Sunak, and you might be able to back up your claims that we are all in this together.
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