Boris Johnson can’t afford to get his roadmap out of lockdown wrong – this is what he needs to include

For the plan to work, the whole of government needs to be aligned behind it and, perhaps most importantly, the chancellor Rishi Sunak also needs to be fully on board

Gemma Tetlow
Thursday 18 February 2021 19:40 GMT
Boris Johnson says lockdown will be eased in 'stages' - but refuses to give more details

Boris Johnson faces a crucial test next week when he is expected to set out his roadmap out of lockdown. Having mismanaged the attempts to roll back social and economic restrictions last year, the prime minister cannot afford to stumble again. Doing so, and risking a fourth lockdown, would be a serious failure of government.

Our new report sets out how Johnson’s government can optimise its strategy this time and what it needs to learn from past mistakes. The government is right to emphasise that data, not dates, should dictate its strategy. It should peg the easing of restrictions to clear metrics – cases, hospital admissions, vaccinations and the R number.

It must also set out what would necessitate a change in approach and ensure that it can adapt its strategy far quicker than it did last year. It must also be upfront with the public about its objectives, and why they have changed, and specify the level of risk it deems acceptable. The government needs to be realistic about the limitations of contact tracing, self-isolation and hotel quarantine, and ensure that its communications strategy continues to underpromise and overdeliver.

One of the crucial lessons from the mistakes made last year is that the whole of government needs to be aligned behind the plan to ensure that different strands of policy pull in the same direction. Perhaps most importantly, the chancellor needs to be fully on board.

The Treasury has the important task of managing the UK’s economic recovery as it emerges from lockdown, while ensuring economic policies support – and certainly do not undermine – the government’s ability to control the virus.

It is critical that the Treasury’s approach is aligned with that set out by the prime minister, as well as with the devolved nations who are considering their own approach to lockdown lifting, and that its economic policy decisions are tied to changes in the level of restrictions and prevalence of the virus rather than a rigid timetable.

During the two attempts last year to reinvigorate the economy – at the end of the summer and then again in the autumn – Rishi Sunak pursued policies that were mistimed or inconsistent with other government initiatives.

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme implemented last summer was inconsistent with the actions of other departments that were, at the time, planning on the basis that a second wave was a real possibility. The government’s leading epidemiologists were not consulted and one subsequently called it “epidemiologically illiterate” to subsidise indoor gatherings, where the risk of transmission was highest. The Treasury’s recent attempt to repair the reputation of Eat Out to Help Out, on the basis of dubious evidence, suggests it has not learned from its mistake.

In the autumn, the chancellor was again caught out by assuming that further public health restrictions would not be required. Sunak tried to start winding down the furlough scheme, focusing support only on “viable” jobs and encouraging other sectors of the economy to start adjusting. He was too slow to adapt his plans, continuing to hope a second lockdown would be avoided even as evidence mounted that the country was not on the path back to normality.

The Budget on 3 March needs to lay out plans for economic policy that are consistent with the prime minister’s roadmap, being clear how tax and spending measures will be used to support the economy as lockdown measures are eased. Failure to do so could undermine the whole plan. Considerable uncertainty remains about exactly when and how that will be possible.

The chancellor cannot expect to embark on an unwavering journey to economic recovery. If there is one lesson he, and indeed the whole of the government, should learn from 2020, it is that he needs to be willing and able to adapt as circumstances change.

Gemma Tetlow is chief economist for the Institute for Government

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