These are the strangest of days. Still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a higher infection rate today than when the country belatedly went into semi-lockdown, we watch one day seamlessly blend into tomorrow under waves of golden sunshine. The driest May for 46 years, the sunniest ever, much of the time it’s been warm, on other days it’s been hot. Hotter than Greece at the moment, it won’t stay that way for long. In time, surely, our ‘changeable’ maritime climate will return because this can’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever.
The strangeness is, in part, because the oncoming economic train wreck that will soon be upon us is not part of the national conversation. Something like eight million of us are currently furloughed, which is to say unemployed but having most of our wages covered by the taxpayer. We’ve all been temporarily nationalised. With the sun shining, thousands, if not millions, have headed to the beach and various tourist attractions. Because no one is currently going abroad, because there’s nothing else to do, because the weather is fantastic, many of us are no longer staying at home. But it’s not just the rain that will bring an end to the good times.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is everyone’s mate at the moment. Sunak, chosen by Dominic Cummings to replace Sajid Javid in order to bring the Treasury under the control of Number 10 in general and him in particular, has given us free money for doing nothing. Some people, although by no means all, have never had it so good. And here’s the problem: Sunak – or is it Cummings? – has decided to turn the money taps off in the coming months. “I cannot save every job,” announces Sunak, with a degree of honesty normally absent from Johnson’s coterie. However, that’s not the full story and that’s why we’re still living in what appears to be a weird dream.
In a matter of weeks, the drip drip of jobs, already well underway in certain sectors like aviation, will become a Tsunami. The brave new world of social distancing will tear down the nation’s economic fabric. Those jobs we thought would last forever might not last the summer. Older folk, like me, will recall the days of mass unemployment under Margaret Thatcher, where entire towns were thrown under the bus. Our proud manufacturing sector was torn to shreds as the economy moved to the service sector. The idea that we will ‘bounce back’, as Sunak promised in the early days of the lockdown, have long been forgotten. Quietly, he prepares us for the recession to come, but too quietly for anyone to really notice. The mortgage has been paid, there is bread on the table. Recession? What recession?
At every stage with COVID-19, the government has been behind the curve. In testing, in dealing with care homes, PPEs; in every conceivable way Johnson has dithered and blustered. Consequently, we have seen a terrible loss of life, far and away the worst in Europe. We are now about to see terrible losses of jobs and livelihoods.
This time, it will not just be the ‘usual suspects’ claiming benefits. This time, Jobcentres will be filled with the educated middle classes who will be confronted with the stark and often harsh world of the requirements for getting benefits and the sanctions for those perceived to be not trying hard enough to find work. And all for a sum of money which will bear little resemblance to the supposed freebies available in order to have a life of luxury, new cars and foreign holidays. What on earth will people make of it all?
When the rains come and the nights start closing in, how on earth will society react to a world in which the fabulously rich members of the illiberal elite, like Cummings and Johnson, can do as they choose while the rest of us can go to hell in a hand cart? Those who were asleep at the wheel when COVID-19 struck will be the same people who will have to guide the country through the deepest economic recession, perhaps even another great depression. This does not give cause for comfort.
It is not a case of whether millions will lose their jobs: it’s how many million. It is not a case of whether thousands of companies will go to the wall: it’s how many thousand. It is, essentially, a debate on how bad things are going to get.
The shock to the system will be immense and the long dog days of spring will seem like a very long to go. Many experts say everything is in place for a crash in house prices, leaving millions with negative equity and many others staying away from the Repo Man.
Boris Johnson must start to prepare the country for the pain to come because if he doesn’t, the fragile unity of the country, tried and tested to near destruction by Johnson and Cummings since the EU referendum of 2016, will explode into millions of pieces.
We have not been here before. No one in Britain has ever seen anything like COVID-19 and to follow we will have a king-sized economic crash which no one is talking about. Strange days indeed.