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Coronavirus: The Crisis Deepens

Coronavirus: The Crisis Deepens

Shelves empty of toilet roll in a UK supermarket

Only last month what seemed little more than newspaper tittle-tattle suddenly feels menacingly real. Boris Johnson’s already talking darkly about the worst public health crisis for a generation. And, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, how the government responds to the coronavirus pandemic may define its legacy.

‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’

Bojo stopped short of using that line from the scary 1980’s movie The Fly. But only just.

We’ve given up on containing the spread of the virus, and moved on to trying to delay it, he says. And lives will be lost, whatever happens

But the British government has – so far at least – steered clear of draconian measures taken in a number of other countries. That’s to say more or less shutting up shop for a while.

It’s a balanced argument. Do too much too soon and people might have got bored with heeding official advice, just when they start needing to.

Do it too late and the damage is already done.

Either way, there’s a price to be paid. And a huge political cost if the Prime Minister calls it wrong. The worst of it being, from his point of view, that it’s as much a guess as a judgement. And he knows it.

Of course, Bojo tells us, he’s guided by the scientists. But even within that august community views vary. And mistakes get made.

So far, however, Boris on the surface seems to have been something approaching pitch-perfect, and certainly has done a whole lot better than his US counterpart.

When Donald Trump did finally drag himself from the golf course to crack down on travel from most of Europe, he didn’t mention it to the nations concerned first.

But then again, he didn’t go big on consultation with the Mexicans about his great big beautiful wall either. Borders are his thing, keeping others in the loop is not.

It all makes talking about anything so, well, normal, as budgets seem a bit boring.

But the new Chancellor’s stonking great cash splurge last week does dovetail neatly, and uncomfortably, into the same story.

What’s thirty billion smackers between friends? Say it quickly and it doesn’t sound so much. But it’s the biggest giveaway in nearly thirty years.

Much of it was planned in advance, before Rishi Sunak was unexpectedly airlifted into Number Eleven in last month’s blood-strewn cabinet reshuffle.

But more than a third of it – yes, that’s right, more than a third – was bolted on to try and alleviate the effects of coronavirus.

Around half of this extra bit will be spent propping up the NHS, and the rest will go towards helping businesses and workers weather the storm.

It’s just a stroke of luck that the age of inexpensive borrowing looks set to last, meaning the government can afford to risk thrusting its hand so deep in its pocket.

Certainly, with the Bank of England last week cutting interest to its lowest rate ever, and the money markets fizzing and popping like there really may be no tomorrow, people with savings might be tempted to follow Ken Dodd’s example. And stuff the lot under the mattress.

But the government may still need the dosh for a rainy day. Which could come any time. That’s if it isn’t already upon us.

Hours before the budget the Office for National Statistics, the nation’s biggest independent number-cruncher, announced the economy had not grown at all in the three months to January.

So much for the Boris/Brexit bounce. Makes pancakes look those giant balls kids bobble along on.

And, in a telling but little-noticed aside in the budget speech, the chancellor slipped in the fact that, thanks to coronavirus, ‘up to a fifth of the working age population could need to be off work at any one time’.

And there could be worse on the way. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which is paid by the government to get this sort of thing, has produced a forecast that’ll make annoying reading for Brexit fans everywhere.

It appears leaving the European Union will hit growth, exports and the public finances hard, just at a time we don’t need it. And that’s a best-case scenario.

Taking back control? Not. Will the treasury’s breezy tearing up of the rule-book come back to bite us all? Hopefully not.

Hopefully, however, is not the same as plain old not.

It’s normal for the chancellor to get immediate post-budget pats on the back. But they’ll morph into daggers if it turns out he’s trashed the Tories’ reputation for economic competence. That is a legacy thing.

Dear oh dear, it makes all those ‘danger to life’ severe weather warnings seem almost comforting. At least we’re used to them.

Nor have we quite lost our British sense of irony. Which is lucky, as the health minister Nadine Dorries has to admit, having herself been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Turns out she started feeling ill just as she was signing a parliamentary paper that declared it to be a notifiable disease.

‘Blimey,’ she might have thought, ‘better tell someone’. Which she obviously did, as Fleet Street had the story.

Meanwhile, the humour doing the rounds has an icy froideur about it.

On hearing the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference had been called off, for the obvious reason, one seasoned observer murmured ‘shame. Attending would have been just like self-isolation. But less interesting.’

Could be even some within the party might smile at that. But their problem is the nations one in miniature. Holidays? Theatre productions? Business seminars? Just about anything? To go or not to go?

All in all, it’s like when a baby’s due, at some point, god knows when. Puts life on hold.

It does shamble on, though, so a word more about the budget. Which promised the biggest giveaway in thirty years, and presented Labour with a problem.

Seeing as it ushers in a bigger state than even the Blair/Brown axis could have managed, how’d you meaningfully oppose that?

The underlying strategy is clear, however. All those ex-Labour votes loaned to the Tories at the election need to be translated into gifts. PDQ, ideally.

Not that the package is quite what the figures suggest. Yes, there will be oodles of boodle sprayed over the health service and the police. And yes, there will be big, bold infrastructure projects created for all to see.

But no, there won’t be a sudden transformation of all those vital but fragmented public services that’ve been starved of cash since the beginning of austerity.

And if the doom-laden warnings about the ultimate financial cost of coronavirus are to believed, the only change we’re looking at is short change. Miserable for all concerned.

Apologies to readers, this piece carries two health warnings. The first is about the facts. All up to date at the time of writing, not necessarily at the time of reading.

The second concerns the paucity of gags. In such surreally sombre times they might be considered out of place.

Besides, the kind of humour generally exhibited in this column could be infectious. Now please wash your hands.

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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