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Here are three concrete steps the Government isn’t taking that it should

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
29 September 2020

t is unsettling reading the old emails of friends who have died. With their casual conversation, and urgent exclamation marks, and plans to meet in what was then the future, they speak to you as ghosts. So I have felt going through my inbox from Harry Evans, the great newspaper editor who has just died. His and his wife Tina’s friendship is always there, in downtimes even more so than the ups: “come and stay with us” is the immediate demand after I’m ejected from my home in Number 11. But I wanted to read again the long email where Harry told me how to be a newspaper editor. “News matters”. “Wit beats nastiness”. “The Diary must bubble”. “Find your Osbert Lancaster” (I did; he’s called Christian Adams). “Set the political-economic policy in the editorial column”. Above all, the great newspaper man told me “as you did in your other day job, develop policy themes”. It was contrarian advice. Everyone else was telling me I had to stop behaving like a politician: let them take the decision; your job now is to throw the bricks from the sidelines.

There are many honourable exceptions — this paper has consistently pushed to open up London safely to avoid economic destruction — but too much of the media commentary during this pandemic has been along the lines of “look at how these useless people are messing it up”. Yes, in a democracy holding government accountable is an important job for a free press. But what I don’t hear so much of is: ok, here’s how we would handle this pandemic differently. Do we let pubs and restaurants stay open, and keep our cities going, even though that must lead to more people catching Covid? Do we let students out of their confinement in halls of residence, knowing that if we do, more will end up in hospital? You can call on Boris Johnson to listen to a broader range of scientists, or demand Parliament gets a bigger say on things, or criticise mistakes, but that is ducking the really hard choices that now sit on the Prime Minister’s desk. Backbench Tory MPs are more guilty of this than any paper. So — following Harry’s advice — here instead are three concrete steps the Government isn’t taking that it should.

First, look at the resources being devoted to testing (about £11 billion to date) and double them, and double again. Reinforce the considerable efforts of the Health Department with all the capacity available to the Government — and hire in more if you have to. Use local private laboratories, as Germany does. Deploy the army and repurpose parts of the civil service currently doing less important, routine functions. And get the Prime Minister to lead the testing effort on a daily basis, chairing Cobra meetings or their equivalent, chasing progress until it happens. There are roughly 250,000 Covid tests available each day. But there are 66 million citizens, and unless and until anyone who is being told to isolate for two weeks can get an immediate test, and rapid result, then offices and schools and universities are going to be disrupted beyond the point where they can function.

Second, make fighting Covid the sole focus of the centre of government. That means ditching now the prospect of leaving the EU trading arrangements without a deal. Planning for lorry parks and passports for Kent is too much for the capacity of the British state and the people leading it. Every hour spent on planning a no-deal Brexit, and every official tasked with it, is an hour and an official that could be deployed on Covid. It’s doing more harm to the economy. Politically it’s now a non-runner. Today every job lost can be blamed on an act of nature; leave with no deal and every job lost will be blamed on an act of Boris. So instruct the negotiators to compromise this week on the remaining obstacles to a deal, and this month sign one.

Today every job lost can be blamed on an act of nature; leave with no deal and an act of Boris will be to blame

Third, do not take further measures to lock down society and the economy. It is mine and this paper’s belief that we have reached the right balance. Enforce the rules we now have. If the Government goes further and closes shops and restaurants, or bans people from meeting their families, or starts contemplating a “temporary circuit breaker ” (that won’t be temporary) of closing schools, it will have gone too far. The permanent damage that would come from lost livelihoods, no education and loneliness outweighs the extra infections, and premature deaths, that a further lockdown would prevent. That’s a very tough trade-off. But it’s exactly the kind of hard decision a Prime Minister has to make, and — Harry was right — the media too often shies away from.

George Osborne is Editor-in-Chief of the Evening Standard