Lockdown - Reflections at the end of week 48
Every so often during the period of the pandemic, there have been weeks of real change, both good and bad. This has felt like a week of change, which may sound rather odd given that we remain locked down and the levels of infection remain high. But the numbers are dropping and there are firm indications, with the R number now below 1, that a combination of the vaccine programme and lockdown measures are having their desired effect.
But it’s not only the drop in the infection rate that has given the sense of change. The political debate is starting to shift from what we have to do now to deal with the virus to what we’re going to do next to restore the freedoms to our lives that we all took for granted. In amongst that, there’s also the question of how we pay for it, and the Labour Party had first dibs at that this week as Sir Kier Starmer set out his party’s outline proposals. At the heart of it was a plan to create a government savings bond in an attempt to unlock some of the £125bn which is believed to have been put away in savings across the population of Britain during the last 11 months. He may have been partly motivated in this by research that suggests that, having made those savings, there is a reluctance to go out and spend it, so creating the need to devise a means of making that cash work in the cause of national economic recovery. It’s not a new idea - today is the 105th anniversary of the launch of National Savings Certificates which were a fund raiser for the costs of the First World War. It has already been criticised by those who hold the view that consumer spending needs to be encouraged because the government has not had difficulty in borrowing in established bond markets, but its set down a core policy marker in the debate to come.
The Chancellor, who still remains pretty quiet, will have his turn next. It still feels unlikely that the budget early next month will be the occasion for implementing any significant national economic recovery plan, but it would be surprising if it did not trail ideas that will underpin policy to be introduced later in the year. The lobbyists are in full cry so he’s not short of advice. In amongst it all are some sobering figures about government borrowing, long term joblessness and the uneven economic effects of the pandemic across different sectors of our society so he’ll need plenty of wisdom amongst the strident demands.
Readers of these pieces will be familiar with my not entirely approving comments on the Prime Minister’s tendency to over promise and then disappoint by under delivering. So another notable change to my eyes this week has not been his embracing of optimism, since this is a long established habit, but his tempering of it with caution as he has done this week, is. Not everyone approves, with a group of his own back benchers being highly vocal in demanding an early opening up of the economy. Lovely though that would be, he is surely right to be careful given how unpredictable the virus has been in recent months and that no-one would want to repeat the experience of going back into lockdown having been let out for a while. Mind you, he hasn’t entirely changed his spots with his having preserved his ability to gaffe with his curious reference to OJ Simpson jumping out of his mouth before he was able to stop it whilst he was fighting with a pair of gloves.
Other changes this week include:
- leaders of wealthier nations publicly acknowledging the need to promote and support Covid vaccination programmes in less well-off countries. This feels long overdue, not only in humanitarian terms but in terms of ensuring that the virus is effectively controlled on a global scale; and
- the US government re-engaging with global climate change initiatives and in discussions with Iran. These both fall within election policies of the Biden campaign, but the need for the former is being reinforced at the moment by the extraordinary weather being experienced in Texas.
I’ve also enjoyed the distraction of the Perseverance Mars landing - a remarkable feat of science and engineering which will see a vehicle meandering round the surface of Mars gathering samples for a couple of years. I can’t quite get the picture of Wallace and Gromit’s Moon–bound cooker/robot out of my head but it’s a refreshing to think about something outside Earth’s concerns for a change.
One final change. Last week it was snowmen, this week temperature in the mid-teens, so make the most of a balmy weekend.