A few principles should inform how the Government – any government – responds to what is a devastating act of God that affects all of us. They are:
1) The vulnerable, those who can’t look after themselves, need more help than most.
2) If certain behaviours help to keep all of us safe, they should be incentivised.
3) If vital infrastructure and services are at risk of collapse, and the market cannot bear the cost of restoring them, those costs should be socialised, or shared between all of us, with the wealthy shouldering the lion’s share.
Here I am thinking of the genuine risks that, if, as the Government has said, a fifth of employees will end up self-isolating (and that may be an understatement) maintaining everything from payment systems to broadband will become challenging (I am not being alarmist; business leaders have shared their fears with me about the risk of systemic collapse).
4) The Government and Bank of England should be the insurer of last resort for companies. This does not mean keeping all businesses on life support, but does mean propping up those whose loss would do most harm to the UK’s productivity potential and providing emergency cheap credit to others that can demonstrate their underlying viability and resilience.
As one Tory minister put it to me, these principles imply that Boris Johnson will almost certainly have to oversee a Government that for a good year or maybe longer will look quite socialist.
‘We’ll find ourselves implementing most of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme’ is how he put it.
As I mentioned, the Treasury and Bank of England will find themselves having to play God in respect of deciding which businesses to save.
And the simplest way to make sure no one goes to work and spreads the virus when they should be self-isolating is to introduce that most debated of modern welfare concepts, the universal basic income, which gives an entitlement to everyone to a minimum income.