Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean.
The Government has extended the existing coronavirus restrictions by three weeks. Although the data is starting to indicate the current measures are working and we are at or near the peak of this outbreak, that is not yet certain, and so it was right to extend the restrictions to ensure we continue to protect the NHS and save lives.
Thinking about the future, we will only be able to return to something like normal life once we have created a vaccine. This is likely to take 12-18 months and there is a possibility there may never be one. It’s very clear that we can’t continue with the current lockdown waiting for a vaccine, given the detrimental impact of the restrictions on people’s health and the economic damage.
The economic impact was spelt out starkly in the recent report by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) with the economy shrinking by a third in the second quarter of this year. The OBR took what I think is a very optimistic view that the economy would recover sharply with little long-term impact. I think there is a real risk of long lasting economic damage, a position shared by the Bank of England Governor.
There will also be negative effects on people’s health from changes that have taken place in the NHS to respond to the virus such as delaying screening programmes, postponing elective surgery and people being put off seeking urgent medical care.
It’s going to be a long process for the UK to return to its pre-coronavirus state – so better to think in terms of a “recovery plan” than an “exit strategy”. As the Government develops this plan it would be wise to be as open as possible with the public about the trade-offs we face, the things we know and the things we don’t.
As some of the restrictions are able to be relaxed, government messaging will necessarily be more complex than now. The Government will be more likely to take the public with it if it keeps them informed as the recovery plan develops. It should also be careful to only make promises it is confident it can keep. If it can’t make a promise it should explain why not.
So what would this recovery plan look like? Over a period of time, starting once we are confident we are past the peak, it will be possible to reduce the restrictions that are in place, perhaps starting by reopening schools and a wider range of retail outlets. As we do so, some social distancing measures will need to continue until we have a vaccine.
In countries where they have either been successful in limiting the impact of coronavirus or where they have already been able to relax restrictions, a significant testing, contact tracing and isolation programme has been a key part of their strategy. In order to enable the economy to recover, but continue to protect the NHS and save lives, we will need to significantly and rapidly increase our testing capability and our ability to link this to a contact tracing system which can isolate infected people and those they’ve recently come into contact with.
In order to recover from the downturn we need to increase economic growth. All the Government’s economic decision-making should be taken with that objective in mind. In our manifesto (which feels like a long time ago now), we made commitments to significantly increase spending on research and development, education and skills. These priorities are now even more important. Many businesses and individuals will have to adapt to respond to the changed economic situation.
The tax burden is at a 50-year high so the last thing we want to do is increase the cost of living for people by putting up their taxes. If we want businesses to invest, grow and hire people, then keeping business taxes competitive is vital. Significantly higher taxes are not going to help us recover, they’ll make things worse.
Until we have a vaccine, we are going to have to live with this virus whilst enabling the economy to recover and limiting the pressure on our NHS. While the Government will continue to listen to expert advice, Ministers will need to exercise political judgement and take a series of very tough decisions, sooner rather than later.