The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on every aspect of our lives, including politics and policy. Over the last two months we have seen the normal business of government in many areas grind to a halt. Issues such as Brexit, international trade deals and the development of policy areas have taken second place to COVID-19. Large numbers of civil servants have been repositioned to support the crisis and sectors in need, consultations and policy have been put on hold, huge swathes of new COVID-19 specific policy and guidelines have been unleashed along with vast government backed financial support packages from the Job Retention Scheme to Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and Bounce Back loans.
Whilst there are now some signs of the ‘business as usual’ issues returning, the focus is still very much on the management of COVID-19, its impact on the economy and the path to social and economic recovery.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis will not just be short term. It will have a profound impact on our politics, policy and economy for many months, years and decades to come.
The COVID-19 crisis has plunged the Government into a deep and what will be a long-lasting crisis. Initially the Government weathered the storm well. When lockdown was first announced it, and the Prime Minister, received strong popular backing. This was, of course, before the Prime Minster himself (and key advisers such as Dominic Cummings) became ill. The lack of central control became increasingly evident.
The Government is facing growing criticisms regarding its timing in announcing lockdown measures, the lack of pandemic preparedness in the healthcare system and the failure to adequately protect those most vulnerable in society. We can expect this scrutiny to grow as the Government sets out its ‘exit’ plans. For the first time since the crisis began, polls now show that public support for the Government’s handling of Coronavirus has dropped sharply.
So how might the political landscape look after Coronavirus?
On COVID-19 they face the unenviable challenge of deciding how fast to press the restart accelerator. On the one hand, they need to restore the ailing economy, on the other they have a duty to protect lives. Moving too fast on the restart will lead to a swifter return of the virus. If the UK were to face a ‘second’ peak, big decisions will need to be made on tightening up restrictions, which are likely to be poorly received as people enjoy their freedoms once more.
The Government will also face increasing scrutiny of their actions around restart and their handling of the COVID-19 crisis as whole. The main opposition party, the Labour Party, and its new leader, Keir Starmer, are working with renewed confidence in how to strategically edge forward on the Government. They will see the Government’s 80-seat majority as a huge hurdle but both the Government and the Opposition are aware that the impact of COVID-19 has the ability to make this a surmountable challenge in next election.
Equally the Government is also facing growing criticism from within their own party, with backbencher MPs and major party donors voicing criticisms about the Government’s handling of the crisis.
The cost of the Government’s total responses to date to the virus have risen from £103.7bn to £123.2bn, with the furlough scheme among the main reasons. The consequences for borrowing are huge, with the annual figure equal 15.2% of the UK economy. The last time it was 15% was in 1945/6 at the end of World War Two.
Tough decisions lie ahead which will not help boost the Government’s popularity. With government finances under immense pressure given the size and scope of the multi-industry support packages, the Government must now decide which sectors to support moving forward and how support can be best targeted. Are resources best spent on continuing the furlough scheme or better spent propping up sectors such as aviation or channelled into public services such as the National Health Service?
The delayed spending review, due to be announced this autumn, could also see swinging cuts to some government departmental budgets. Despite state intervention now being the norm, there are still some in No.10 who think the crisis has exposed the need to reform the state (and Whitehall) more than ever. In other areas, such as public service provision, local government spending or health service pay, there is the scope for a paradigm shift to create a new social contract post COVID-19. The virus has revealed the necessity of well-funded public services and the welfare state and the importance of social care. Many in the Conservative Party will also be keen to maintain support in their new ‘red wall’ heartlands through such welfare expenditure.
In terms of its approach moving forward, there is a question about whether the Government will return to its favoured themes, such as ‘levelling up’ or Brexit, or if it will seek to combine these in the post-coronavirus reconstruction narrative. Certainly, the necessary priority given to handling COVID-19 and the profound impact it will have on the economy and the Government’s ability to spend is also likely to see a reassessment of existing policies and priorities.
A number of policies and consultations have already been put on hold and many areas will well need to be reassessed in the light of COVID-19. As we have seen this week during the passage of the Immigration Bill, COVID-19 has thrown the need for migrant workers to drive the British economy, with many underlining how the crisis has demonstrated that the proposed immigration limits and financial thresholds are unviable.
On other issues, such as Brexit, there is desire to press on. This includes major infrastructure projects which many in the Conservative party see as vital to delivering economic growth.
The road ahead
At this stage, just two months into the COVID-19 crisis, there are still may unknowns ahead, perhaps most of all how we will fare in battling this disease. But, what we can foresee is that this pandemic will have wide ranging effects on our society our economy and our politics in the weeks, months and years to come.