We are in a make-or-break moment for trust, not just in this government but in the British state itself. The measures that were announced by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak this week are extraordinary in economic, social and legal terms. When the Covid-19 crisis is finally over, the state will be judged against how effective they were.
None of us will have lived through anything like what we are about to experience. If the UK gets it broadly right, then trust in our politicians and the state will rise. But if it gets it wrong, then the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state will be changed for at least a generation. People will be far more reluctant to follow official advice in future.
Johnson now talks about this being a ‘wartime government’. The phrase dramatizes the change that has taken place, one that no one could have anticipated when the Tories won their 80-seat majority on December 12. It not only reveals the size of the challenge but also what is at stake: a state that cannot protect its own citizens quickly loses legitimacy.
But the government knows little about the enemy it is fighting. For instance, no one can be sure what effect COVID-19 will have on a child whose mother contracts it early in pregnancy — because the virus has been in humans for only a few months. One of those who are trying to deal with the crisis likens it to driving in fog: you simply do not know what is ahead.
The challenge facing the government is much more dramatic — and serious — than the one it was supposed to face in the months following the end of the Brexit transition period. Voters, it was thought, would judge the government on whether the borders worked or not. It was going to be a competence test that could win or lose the government the next election.
Senior government figures are beginning to speculate in private that the date for the UK exiting the transition period will have to be pushed back. This week’s trade negotiations have been called off and if the bars on travel last as long as expected, it is hard to see how it could all be done by December 31. No. 10, though, still maintains that there is time to do a deal.
Johnson needs to become a truly national leader in the coming months. In a country that has been divided by the politics of the past few years, he must find a way to bring people together in a common endeavor. Given that this crisis is nothing to do with Brexit and that Johnson is not a political sectarian, this should be possible. Sunak’s economic package was not ideological but was a simple attempt to keep the economy going. Its size — £350 billion ($404 billion) — was staggering. But the government’s aim was to emphasize that it would do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the economy going. Expect more on what measures the government will take to support workers in the coming days.
One thing that would help immensely is if a test is developed to see who has had the virus and recovered. In Whitehall, there is growing confidence that this will soon be possible. It would, as the chief medical officer Chris Whitty has said, be ‘transformational’, by enabling two things. First, it would mean that those National Health Service workers who have already had the disease would be able to carry on working without fear of becoming infected. Second, citizens who have had it could take part in a massive volunteer effort. They could help in hospitals or deliver food and medicine to the doorsteps of the vulnerable. David Cameron’s vision of a ‘big society’ never took off as a political idea, but if ever we needed it, it is now. A community effort could save lives and keep up the spirits of those who are suffering and those who are helping out.
This virus will change British society. If these economic and social measures are needed for as long as 18 months, it will do so profoundly. We will remember life under COVID-19 in the way earlier generations remembered rationing. Various issues will also be pushed up the agenda, such as the gig economy and the obligations that firms have to their contractors. The government is keen to avoid taking steps that will, in effect, be impossible to reverse. But the longer this situation goes on, the harder it will be to deliver piecemeal solutions.
The crisis will also catalyze a shift in attitudes to China. Several ministers are furious that after Sars, another disease has emerged from China as a result of its live animal markets. There is a feeling that the CCP’s refusal to deal with this problem endangers others.
Coronavirus has also highlighted the extent to which UK supply chains, including medical ones, are dependent on China. Influential figures in government believe that this situation is not sensible and it must be addressed once the crisis is dealt with. Medical security will become a policy objective as much as food security is.
‘Wartime governments’ are judged by history on one thing: did they win? But Johnson will be aware that beating the virus is no guarantee of ‘post-war’ electoral success — just think of Churchill in 1945. Success in the fight against coronavirus would, however, significantly boost trust in the state and the political class. It would undo much of the damage done to public faith in politics by the past 12 years. By contrast, failure could damage the relationship between the British public and the state for ever.