As Rishi Sunak prepares to deliver his budget on Wednesday, the Chancellor should be wary of his current popularity. Not only does he face tough economic choices, but more significantly his judgement during Covid-19 will soon be questioned. For a figure that has successfully curtailed and followed public opinion since last March, inquiries into the Government’s handling of the pandemic will find him at odds with the electorate and scientists. Consequently, I predict Matt Hancock will emerge as the Cabinet Minister who garners greater praise from the history books than Sunak.
Today this suggestion seems risible. Sunak is the most popular Chancellor in forty years, and the success of the furlough scheme will not be forgotten by those whose jobs and livelihoods it saved. Meanwhile, the Health Secretary is associated with the failure of test and trace and not having enough PPE.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight and further revelations concerning how ministers treated scientific advice, Hancock will be proven right, and Sunak wrong.
1. There was never a choice between health and the economy
The virus always found a way to spread, whilst the economy and society were open. That is the lesson from the UK’s twice-failed tiering system. In October, hospitality that benefited from being open, soon found that the virus escaped regions under lockdown. A full national lockdown followed each time this was attempted in November and January. This half-in, half-out series of measures, has left the UK with the worse death rate and economic recession in Europe.
A cause for this compromise was partly the Prime Minister’s failure to decisively conclude on the debate between Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock. The latter was frequently reported as supporting tougher measures, arguing that without a lower prevalence of the virus, the economy will not recover.
In September, Sunak persuaded Boris Johnson to ignore the recommendations of SAGE for a three-week national ‘circuit breaker’, arguing it would wreck the economy after a summer of recovery. In October, Johnson was forced into following the advice of Hancock and plunged the country into another national lockdown.
This example has been reported widely in the press, but as more SAGE minutes are released and scientists over time devolve otherwise confidential details, many more similar examples could be revealed. Hancock can be confident that at each occasion, from talk of the initial relaxation of measures last May to January 2021, his belief in that tighter restrictions will allow a sooner economic recovery has been proven correct. In contrast, each time Sunak announced he was ending the furlough scheme redundancies increased, only before the Chancellor was then forced into extending the scheme as health restrictions remained necessary.
2. Sunak did not follow the public or the science
Making matters worse for the Chancellor is that neither the public nor the scientists were in favour of his decisions at the time.
If an inquiry reveals that Sunak was the decisive intervention behind blocking a circuit breaker, the 54% who believed that we should have introduced one, will not look kindly on the Chancellor.
Sunak was never making an argument the public backed. Health concerns always triumphed over the economy. Last May, Ipsos Mori found that 53% of people backed prioritising health, with 31% ‘both equally’, and only 11% prioritising ‘economic health’. The enormous support for each national lockdown only compounds this.
Whilst Sunak may be able to win the public back over with mentions of the furlough scheme, this will not placate scientists – a group of people, notwithstanding their own mistakes, who will be key players in a future inquiry. Their accounts will reveal Hancock as someone who followed closest the scientific advice. In February, SAGE recommended against a lockdown, arguing the best way to handle the disease would be to slow its spread. Hancock backed the science. In September, Sunak disagreed most stridently with SAGE’s recommendation for tighter measures. In each statement by Whitty and his team in the future, Hancock will find greater support than Sunak for his actions.
3. Hancock was correct on Vaccines
Finally, imagine the scene in the beer garden come July. Pint in hand, Euros on the television, and then that annoying mate suddenly wants to talk about the pandemic again. What will you remember as the Government’s greatest success? The Vaccine scheme.
The more said about this, the better for Hancock. He was reportedly the only minister who believed a vaccine would arrive within a year, and it was he who ensured that the Oxford Vaccine was manufactured in the UK – a decision validated by EU protectionism last month.
Those praised in history, are not always liked at the time. For Hancock, he and his Department have made serious mistakes, and the PM may move him in the next reshuffle. But as the narrative changes to one of review, Hancock will be judged more favourably. On the back of knowing a vaccine was possible, and having learned that the economy could only be saved through tighter health measures. Even more worryingly for Sunak, the inquiry will likely take place in a climate of tax rises, and further unemployment. The last thing he will need, is SAGE scientists blaming him for stopping measures, popular at the time, and proven the correct ones now.