MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: Get Britain back to work, Boris – and start with the schools. The futures of all of us depend on it
To our bold and thoughtful Prime Minister, we would like to address this very simple idea. Unless we can revive and restore the economy, our ability to conquer the Covid menace will shrink and fade, and so will our power to fight all other diseases.
And unless we can get schools back and running fully in September, it is going to be very hard indeed to get the economy working properly. It is now August. The end of summer is in sight. There is little time to be lost.
The economy is not some abstract thing. It is not smooth, rich men in sharp suits making killings in the City of London. The economy is the essential framework of all our lives. The economy repairs the roads, fills the shelves of supermarkets, cares for the old, pays for the police, the fire service, the ambulances and, of course, the NHS.
If it falters, all these things falter too. After defending the country against its foreign enemies, and protecting law-abiding citizens against crime, the economy is the biggest single responsibility of government. And ours is not doing very well at all just now.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing a face mask while working on the train back from North Yorkshire on Thursday
Without the vast flow of artificial life support from Rishi Sunak, which simply cannot last much longer, much of it would swiftly fold. Small businesses, which employ so many individuals and embody the hopes of so many brave risk-takers, are shrivelling for lack of custom, yet in many cases must still pay business rates and rents. High streets are half-empty as shoppers switch to the ease of the internet.
Public transport, devastated by health fears, is now back in the hands of the state as it could not make ends meet without giant subsidy. Pubs and restaurants, hampered by miserable restrictions imposed on them, battle to win back customers in search of the lost pleasures of an evening out. But when those customers turn up they are met with bureaucracy, unsmiling rules and – in many cases – the dispiriting feeling that they might as well have stayed at home.
The leisure travel industry is visibly crumbling, especially after last week’s sudden reimposition of quarantine on travellers returning from Spain. Who now dares risk his or her savings on a holiday, when the destination may at any time be ruled too dangerous to travel, with barely a whisper of warning?
MPs, Ministers and civil servants may be able to cope with 14 days of enforced idleness at home. They will be paid anyway. But plenty of others whose work cannot be done via a home computer dare not take such a risk.
The indiscriminate reimposition of stern rules on Greater Manchester may look responsible to Ministers, many of whom probably think that ‘The North’ is what they occasionally see on Coronation Street. But residents of these areas are baffled by the rules and the reasoning behind them. Is this sweeping measure really in proportion to the supposed danger, or have the Government’s medical advisers been carried away by the huge power that inexpert politicians have conferred on them?
The response of the people of this country to such strictures has so far been rather moving. Told that they can help to stem a dangerous disease by making profound and enduring sacrifices of personal freedom, millions have laid aside doubts and obeyed the most extraordinary instructions for months on end.
Theatre workers protest outside the National Theatre, against the mass redundancies of low-paid art jobs due to the Coronavirus outbreak, in London, Saturday
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R), the Chancellor Rishi Sunak (L), seen here joining Cpl Gemma Connell (C) from the Royal Squadron at RAF Northolt in her 24 hour cycle Challenge to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, Britain, 30, July 2020
They have been separated from friends and family, prevented from working, deprived of their sources of income, kept away even from weddings, funerals and church services. Their children’s schools have been shut – exposing once again the shaming divide between the quality of private and state provision, a chasm that 50 years of promises and reforms have not been able to narrow.
University educations, for which the young are required to sink themselves in frightening debt, have been blighted – with worrying effects on future careers. Their parents’ daily lives have been more infested with regulations and nosey parkers than at any time since the Second World War. Cinemas and theatres have gone dark. Travel plans have had to be thrown in the bin. Yet they have barely complained. And so the Government and its advisers seem to feel they can keep loading more and more restrictions on them.
This is not just an abuse of generosity. It is not just a mistake, though it is a mistake – because even the patience of the British people is not unlimited. Worse still, it stands in bitter contrast to the way the same Government has behaved towards those increasingly overmighty subjects, the public-sector trade unions. Huge numbers who work with their hands, or who for other reasons can do their jobs only if they are physically present, long ago returned to their daily tasks. Yet Government departments and the public sector as a whole, (apart from the NHS) have hardly begun to get back to work. Even though they are supposedly under the direct control of Her Majesty’s Government, Whitehall offices echo with emptiness.
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson arrives at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, London on July 21
And it is still far from clear whether the state schools of England will open properly next month. And if they do not, and if their after-school activities do not resume, legions of parents will simply be unable to return to work properly, and the economy will continue to stutter and stall. It is as simple as that.
Fundamentally, these failures are down to the unwillingness of Ministers to govern properly. Sometimes this means insisting the elected Government has the ultimate right to rule, and overcoming sectional objections.
Lady Thatcher faced down and defeated the great industrial unions on these grounds nearly 40 years ago – because they were damaging the country and indeed destroying the jobs of their own members by obdurate folly.
They were a far more powerful force than today’s public-sector giants. Yet Ministers – most notably Education Secretary Gavin Williamson – seem to have forgotten they were given huge powers by Boris Johnson’s smashing Election victory such a short time ago. And with those powers came the responsibility to use them.
The teaching unions have no excuse or good reason to resist. Covid-19 barely affects the young at all, and other countries have successfully reopened (or continued to maintain) national education systems without tragedy. The unions just think they can get away with it because they have not been properly challenged.
The suggestion that the long-suffering public should have to undergo more closures and restrictions as the price for the reopening of schools is shocking. They have put up with more than enough already.
Mr Johnson and his Cabinet do not only have the force of democracy behind them, they have the greatly enhanced powers we have granted them in return for their promise to protect the country. They have the support of the media and of public opinion. It is time they used their political muscle in this matter. The whole future of the country in the end depends on it.
Get Britain back to work, Boris, and start with the schools of England.
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