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David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

“Are you relieved not to be dealing with this?” is a question I am asked quite a lot at the moment. The honest answer is “not really”. I suspect most former Ministers feel a sense that they would rather be back in post, at the centre of things, able to make a difference.

That said, I feel great sympathy for my former colleagues who are in office. They face far greater challenges than any their recent predecessors faced. There are a range of only bad options, the evidence of the nature of the threat and the advice received by Ministers can change very quickly and there is a strong desire in the media to apportion blame. If something is wrong, someone must be at fault. Ministers will always be high up on the list of candidates.

Not everything has gone smoothly in terms of communication but sometimes it is necessary to try to convey quite complex messages. The Government has tried to communicate messages that reflect a dynamic situation that moves us along the spectrum from ‘business-as-usual’ towards ‘lockdown’. If, as a society, we can only cope with simple, binary positions we will not be able to respond sensibly to the threat we face.

Getting the judgements and messages right has been difficult as we adopt extraordinary measures to combat the virus. This may be even more challenging when it comes to deciding how to relax these measures. There will always be a case for delaying any relaxation, but at some point we will have to move in the direction of normality. Those decisions will probably be the hardest to make.

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A further challenge for the Government is that there plenty of things which people are demanding be done immediately which is just not operationally possible. Most journalists and politicians spend their time focused on the questions of ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘who’ but the most important question at the moment is ‘how’.

How do you provide support to the self-employed? How do you expand healthcare provision in a pandemic? How do you enrol millions of new claimants onto Universal Credit?

Apart from the NHS, the two most important delivery departments at the moment are HMRC and DWP. I spent nearly seven years as the responsible minister for one or the other of them, and the tasks in front of both of them are enormous.

As far as I can see, the staffs at both organisations are responding very impressively but do not underestimate how challenging then next few weeks and months will be for both organisations. Operational constraints mean that some problems don’t have a perfect answer.

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Progress in delivering public services digitally is helping us get through this crisis better than we would otherwise do. When I was at the Treasury, I was a strong supporter of updating how PAYE operated and brought in Real Time Information, which is crucial to the operation of the Government’s furloughing scheme. I also initiated Making Tax Digital, which – as the name suggests – meant that our tax system became more digital.

It was always going to be a long term reform but considerable resistance to the plan meant that it isn’t as advanced as it might have been. Had it been more advanced, I cannot help think that it would have been easier for the Chancellor to develop policies to help the self-employed.

Once we are over the current crisis, we will need to think about how public services can be more resilient in the event of a future pandemic. Improving our capability of delivering services remotely will be key to that. Online school lessons and university courses. GP surgeries by videolink. Greater ability for prisoners to maintain contact with their families electronically.

And are there some tasks which need to be done but don’t require people at all? We need tube trains to keep running. The Docklands Light Railway isn’t vulnerable to drivers being sick because they don’t need drivers. It is time that we move to the same situation with the London Underground.

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Ten days or so ago, my wife returned from our village supermarket. The shelves were empty not because the shop didn’t have the necessary items, but because they didn’t have the staff to stack the shelves. Our friendly but frazzled store manager was doing it all himself.

Keen to make use of my career experience (the bread and other bakery products shelves, Asda, Ipswich, summer 1991), I went down to the shop and offered to volunteer to do some shelf-stacking. Our store manager was keen but called the regional office, and it was all too difficult with worries about liabilities and so on.

As the response to the National Help Service demonstrates, there is a big appetite for people to volunteer. In the weeks ahead, we may see many shortages in critical parts of the labour market – not just in relation to the NHS – and emergency volunteers will be crucial in plugging gaps.

For the most part, the market will fill lots of shortages (supermarkets are rapidly recruiting new staff) but finding ways of quickly filling an emergency shortage with a willing volunteer – removing all bureaucratic obstacles – would be very beneficial.

Of course, identifying what needs to be done is easy. The challenge is how, operationally, this could be done.

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It is quite possible that, in a few weeks, we will have in society a special class of person. This will be a person who has been tested for the Covid-19 antibodies and is found to be immune from catching and spreading the disease.

Anyone who has received such a greenlight could return to living a normal life or could become super-volunteers, able to perform urgent people-facing tasks without the risks facing the rest of the country.

If that situation emerges (and it is, as yet, only a possibility dependent on many assumptions), there will be a new divide in society. The ‘greenlighters’ versus the rest. The greenlighters will be able to do more for the rest of society but it will be impossible to impose on them the restrictions that apply to everyone else.

This will create its own difficulties. For example, how easy will it be to maintain a message that most of the population have to stay at home but the minority who are greenlighters can go to the pub with their greenlighter friends served by greenlighter bar staff?

For a short period of time, a new caste of the Covid immune will enjoy their privileges, whilst the majority look on enviously.

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We are often being told that the current crisis is like the Second World War and that, once this is over, we will move in the direction of higher spending and higher borrowing. If we can do that now, why not in the future?

I suspect we may see higher spending, but I think it is worth reminding ourselves about one oft-forgotten attribute of the post-War Attlee Government. From 1948/9, it ran big Budget surpluses. Exceptional borrowing is justified in exceptional circumstances. Once the exceptional circumstances are over, the exceptional borrowing must come to an end.

71 comments for: David Gauke: The virus – and my journey from serving as Lord Chancellor to volunteering to stack shelves

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