In conversation with Rt. Hon Brandon Lewis MP. Covid-19: Managing the crisis and the path to normality for the UK

In conversation with Rt. Hon Brandon Lewis MP. Covid-19: Managing the crisis and the path to normality for the UK

21.04.20

Tulchan Frameworks, hosted by James Harding, Co-founder and Editor, Tortoise Media, in conversation with Rt. Hon Brandon Lewis MP, Northern Ireland Secretary.

As Dominic Raab, deputising for the Prime Minister, announced the renewal of the lockdown for at least three weeks, and the daily UK death toll rose once again, the conference call focused on next steps for business and government in the critical weeks ahead.

LOCKDOWN RENEWAL

Adhering to its core commitment to be guided by scientific advice, the government could not yet relax the restrictions - and will now await the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) towards the end of April.

At this stage, it would be counter-productive (and potential misleading) even to pencil in a proposed exit date. In such a fluid context, it has been judged best to say only that the lockdown will not be lifted before May 7.

However, the five criteria for eventual relaxation are now explicit: the NHS must be able to cope; there must be a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate; the rate of infection must be in clear decline; the supply of test kit and PPE must be robust; the risk of a second wave of infection must be averted.

In all its deliberations, the government understands that its measures depend upon public consent and that tolerance for the lockdown is not inexhaustible.

SIMPLICITY VERSUS NUANCE

There is a tension between the need to keep public messaging simple and unambiguous, and the complex reality of the pandemic, of its impact and of the prospective road to recovery.

‘Stay at home’ is the all-important principle. But the detailed strategy is multi-layered and includes the necessity to keep as much of the economy running as is consistent with public safety and to explore the precise mode of exit from lockdown - without confusing public debate with a running commentary.

Exit, when it comes, will not be a ‘Big Bang’ moment but a phased and tiered process, involving different sectors of the economy and different population cohorts. A key example of this strategic diversity is the complex interaction between Whitehall, the three devolved administrations and (with regard to cross-border issues) the Irish government.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

For SMEs in particular, the slow pace with which government-guaranteed loans are actually reaching businesses presents a fundamental cash flow problem. Many firms simply do not have the working capital to survive this delay.

The prospect of a phased restart alarms many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector. They will have to resume paying wage bills and rent in full, and replenish their stock. But this will be very hard if footfall returns only gradually.

Working at home was expected by many businesses to be easier than remaining in the workplace - but, on the contrary, is beginning to take an appreciable toll on many employees’ mental health.

Much depends upon the speed with which a reliable antibody test becomes widely accessible: once people know that they have had the virus, they will be able to go back to their offices and resume travel. It is unlikely that such testing will be available on a mass scale before May.

In contrast, the PCR tests that establish whether a person is currently infected by the virus - especially important for NHS and social care workers - will soon be widely accessible, with every prospect that the Health Secretary’s target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April will indeed be met.

Businesses - like taxpayers - seek guidance on how the colossal cost of Rishi Sunak’s measures will be paid for. The government favours growth over taxation, though it is much too early to pre-empt the detail of future Budgets and spending reviews. Ministers accept that a second era of austerity would take a serious psychological toll on the nation.