The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is borrowing £400 billion this year to combat the country’s worst recession in over 300 years. A £4 billion cut in overseas aid and a public-sector pay freeze will be among the early cost savings but the long-term economic damage is expected to last at least a decade.
What has gone wrong? We are assured that this was a natural disaster; that the COVID-19 pandemic was totally unexpected and that the government has done its best in the difficult circumstances.
This is fundamentally wrong.
COVID-19 was a natural hazard not a natural disaster until the government conspicuously failed to respond as it should. The UK was thought to be one of the countries best prepared for a pandemic but turned out to be one of the worst because of government failings right from the start.
For two critical months in January and February there was an appalling failure to respond to what was already known, in spite of continual warnings and many missed chances.
By the time of the first COBRA emergency meeting on 24 January, other countries were already acting with vigour and effect. Indeed, some governments in East Asia had started responding to what was happening in China even before the end of December 2019. By contrast, Johnson did not bother to attend that COBRA session, nor did he go to the next four.
There have been many criticisms of Johnson’s government since March but though these are justified, the real indicator of failure takes us back to the beginning.
Yes, ministers were still in post-election euphoria and enjoying the approach of Brexit Day, but these were minor diversions. If we want to know what really lay beyond the inaction we can do little better than recall Johnson’s Greenwich speech on 3 February, immediately after Brexit.
After bemoaning the slow growth in world trade he went on: