Yesterday, incredibly troubling figures revealed the extent to which Coronavirus has damaged the UK economy. It has gone into a recession, having suffered its biggest slump on record between April and June. In that quarter, the economy shrank by 20.4 per cent compared with the first three months of the year.
The news, though drastic, should not have come as a huge surprise. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, there were stark warnings about the economic horrors being stored up – the job losses, the taxes to be paid and the impact on the young, many of whom had already borne the brunt of 2008’s financial crisis.
The trouble was that anyone who relayed concerns about the effects of the measures taken on the economy was liable to be accused of selfishness – “oh, you care about money not lives?”, was very much the verdict delivered on those who spoke out – with lockdown posed as the only moral choice. Overall there seemed to be a mindset of: “We’ll worry about the economy later”. Well, “later” is here.
How do the Conservatives react to the economic news? I rather think Sunak hit the right note when he announced his “three Rs” plan to The Sun. It stands for “relight economy, return to work and re-open schools”. After all, without a vaccine, and the recession here, what else is there to do?
My personal hunch – partly inspired by the large number of pageviews ConserativeHome gets for articles about Sweden – is that this is what the silent majority has been calling for. It wants the Government to be much bolder in speeding up the economic recovery.
Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme has been one welcome initiative. It was used more than 10.5 million times in its first week;. It is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way of helping get things back to some type of normality.
But it’s the public information campaigns that need a rethink, hence why this new one is needed (even if it might not be as catchy). The “stay at home” message was the right one to give in the dark days of the pandemic in this country. With hospitalisations and deaths falling, and infections generally on a decline, almost the very opposite message, but one equally urgent, should be pressed home.
Some of the messaging needs to be especially targeted at younger generations, many of whom are still scared of this virus, despite themselves being at low risk. This became obvious to me when I went to my gym on Monday night. Even allowing for the steps taken to ensure social distancing, it was almost empty, with about five – at most – exercising.
Before the virus struck, it would have been packed with fit twenty and thirtysomethings, especially on that night. Based on that recent showing, the days of gyms are sadly numbered.
Regulations could be further eased. Some of the measures extended to bars – al fresco dining, for instance – have been great for business. But it has often been remarked that British nightlife is restricted, with closing times being much too early. On a recent trip to Soho I noticed everything closing up while the streets were still full of young people wanting to continue the night. It seemed a waste of economic opportunity.
Lastly, there’s the art sector. Sadler’s Well is one of the greatest venues for dance in the world. This week it sadly announced that around 26 per cent of its staff are facing redundancy. As my mother, a huge fan of Sadler’s Wells, pointed out – what will there be to return to if the pandemic has this effect on great theatres such as this one? Unfortunately the newspapers seem more intent on fearmongering about second waves rather than demanding to know why these venues in this country cannot now reopen as long as sensible precautions are taken.
In saying all this, I do not believe the Government acted incorrectly in March in imposing lockdown. It acted on the information available and the advice given to it. Lockdown seemed the right choice back then. But times and risks change. Granted the Government has eased lockdown, but it should now be even bolder in the steps it takes to get life back to normal, which is why it’s so refreshing to hear Sunak’s message.
However, the first test being the opening of schools. If we cannot resume things for children who are the least at any risk from this virus, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Now that people have the economic reality staring them in the face, they know there are tough choices to be made. And that doesn’t mean deciding whether to prioritise bars or schools in the reopening of the country; it means trying to get much more of society back out again, even if things cannot be risk free. After all, we cannot stay home forever.