Rishi Sunak has been forced to dump his winter economy plan and it’s only autumn. The chancellor is reintroducing the furlough scheme, available to companies told to shut in regions where Covid-19 infection rates are high and rising. He had previously defied calls to introduce such support. Instead he had opted to provide state cash for “viable” jobs, defined as employment where people could work part-time. Now the chancellor has had to make a U-turn. As reality bites, it may be the first of many.
Mr Sunak does not exist in a bubble. Harold Macmillan reportedly expressed this point pithily when, asked what caused governments most trouble, he replied with the now-famous: “Events, dear boy, events.” Because the chancellor held a Panglossian view of how well Boris Johnson’s government was doing in the pandemic, he did not envisage that he would need to save jobs or businesses again with government spending. He is now walking back from his midweek claim that he could not “save every job”.
Having weathered the first coronavirus wave, Mr Sunak focused on reopening the economy. Not enough consideration was given to the idea that the government would not control the viral spread. It has failed to do so, largely because the prime minister’s response was built on an expensive, privatised test-and-trace system that has not delivered. Mixed messaging around local lockdowns and a slovenly attitude by the prime minister to the facts has not helped.
As Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust tweeted: “The tragedy is how predictable this has been since at least early July. It was not inevitable. It is not inevitable now that this worsens, but to avoid spiralling out of control [there] needs to be action now.” In the north of England, hospitals are filling up. In a few days they will be at a level that overwhelmed London hospitals when the national lockdown was announced in March.
The worst-hit places are expected to be placed under tighter restrictions. The state will have to step in to save jobs. Mr Sunak has done the right thing by guaranteeing two-thirds of workers’ wages, up to £2,100 a month for six months. Grants will also be made available to help companies. There’s a fine line between explanations and excuses. Mr Sunak has sought to sound reasonable while his policy screeches into reverse. Apologies are in order because jobs and lives are at stake.
There remains a question about how quickly jobs will recover and how many businesses have gone for ever. It is not looking good. Since March hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared. By winter, unemployment is forecast to reach levels last seen in the early 1980s, with nearly one in eight without work. The economy has grown at the half the rate expected. Mr Johnson’s boosterism may be politically useful but it is poor governance. By refusing to listen to critics – the “gloomsters” – Mr Sunak has been part of the problem. He ought to reflect on this, for the country’s sake.