Lockdown – Reflections at the end of week 44

This morning’s wander round with the dog began in darkness and finished in a growing quarter light. It’s refreshing not to be walking entirely enveloped in stygian gloom and the slow lengthening of daylight hours represents one of the certainties in our current lives.

Certainties are few and far between at the moment as the virus continues to produce terrible numbers of infections and deaths, and with it awful grief and dreadful pressure on hospitals and those who work in them. Whilst the response to a fast-moving and mutating virus has to be flexible, that flexibility needs to be supported by a strong framework of planning. Uncertainty and planning have both been to the fore this week.

We have seen the effects of uncertainty. There is an increasingly vociferous lobby of government backbenchers which is pressing the government to set a road map with timescales for lifting lockdown restrictions. By contrast, the Prime Minister is, for once, playing down expectations having, it seems, taken heed of the risks of over-promising. The effects of uncertainty have been clattering through this week, ranging from further debate about assisting the less well off by continuing the £20 per week additional payment of income support at the most acute end of need all the way through to the announcement of the cancellation of the Glastonbury Festival, at the other end of the scale, and the not knowing doesn’t make life easy or comfortable for many reasons. Nevertheless, it feels both ill-judged and ultimately counter-productive to try to force a timeline in circumstances where we simply don’t know either how quickly the spread of the virus will recede or the effects of the vaccine or what the impact of future mutations of the virus will be.

We have also seen how the uncertainty is affecting the work of the chancellor. Whilst there has to be a budget before 6th April to preserve the government’s tax-raising powers, there seems to be no stronger a case for a budget which creates significant change than there was for an autumn statement from the Treasury in November. There is no shortage of advice being offered to the chancellor at the moment as lobbyists push the agenda from a wide range of angles, with the interests of the less well-off and the need to protect businesses and encourage investment and entrepreneurialism being but two of them. Whilst he won’t want to kick the can too far down the road with December’s figures showing government borrowing continuing to spiral upwards, it would be an extraordinarily challenging job at this stage to set about a significant redesign of parts of the public finances and tax structure whilst the timing of the return to more normalised levels of business and employment is so hard to predict.

That said, there are items where the planning can be undertaken but where it is failing, at least in part. The relative slowness of the vaccination programme in Suffolk, which seems to be due primarily to issues with the distribution of the vaccine, is hard to comprehend and is causing anxiety to elderly members of our community. The ongoing argument with the EU over whether its ambassador to the United Kingdom should be afforded the full range of diplomatic courtesies is surprising and seems ill-judged given the ongoing need to tidy up the loose ends of the Brexit deal- this week’s examples include ongoing issues for agricultural and seafood exports and the effect of tariffs and additional compliance on the cross-border sale of some consumer goods. It also feels discouraging that the United Kingdom is withdrawing from some of its overseas programmes at this point, especially when the sea change in the United States sees it becoming more international in outlook. If the wealthier countries of the world do not commit to supporting tackling Covid in poorer countries, it seems certain that the virus will thrive and mutate there long after it has been controlled elsewhere and spread around the world again.

Continuing the international theme, there is good news about Nissan, who have confirmed that car manufacture will continue in Sunderland on the back of the Brexit deal, but less encouraging news in relation to Google. In brief, the Australian government is attempting to require Google to pay royalties for news content to news publishers. Google’s response has been to threaten to withdraw some of its services from Australia. It would be nice to think that tech giants who have benefitted considerably from the current global conditions would accept a social and financial responsibility to share those benefits with the rest of us, but they are so far broadly resistant. We can only hope for change, although it’s hard to see right now what the catalyst might be.

With apologies for countering the optimism expressed in the last two weeks with the return of Eeyore today, I wish you a good weekend.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner