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Artillery Row

The price of safety

From school face masks to how to pay for Covid – Tory MPs are getting nervous

Boris Johnson once compared burka-wearers to letterboxes. But fashions, including political ones, change. Now, his government has gone beyond requiring partial facial concealment as the pre-requisite for shopping and is extending face coverings to teenagers at school.

The full extent of the policy for England has shifted since Nicola Sturgeon and the WHO endorsed face masks for twelve year olds. For the moment, it is to be mandatory for hotspot areas and embraces about 300,000 school pupils who will not be able to pass between classrooms without affixing the sort of identity-disguises favoured by masked street-fighters and Molotov cocktail lobbers.

But this could change.

Indeed, it may change into a far more comprehensive requirement without the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, having to make another u-turn. Once a government sets a minimum requirement for some schools, the risk-aversion instincts of many other school governing bodies kicks-in to reassure anxious parents, teachers, and unions that everything that could be done will be done. If it’s protecting kids in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, why are the teenagers of Liverpool and Middlesbrough left at the mercy of circulating air? In such ways do public bodies magnify a government lead.

Politicians who wonder whether the reasonable desire to protect health is in danger of becoming counter-productive appear to be almost entirely members of the Conservative party. The ruling administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh have gone as far and further in prioritising maximum safety. For England, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, has been quick to associate the Opposition with the reflexive ‘more and harder’ response to each curtailment on normal customs. “Face coverings should be compulsory in communal areas in schools” she announced. “Instead of this half baked u-turn the government should have given clear guidance and a plan to deliver it.”

Maximum risk aversion was understandable in April when the UK was suffering around a thousand Covid-attributed deaths a day. But the daily death rate is now in the teens not the thousands, having shrunk significantly in proportion to the number of cases. Given this reality, is there a widening disconnect between what politicians and the experts they cite think optimal and what the high street thinks is a reasonable trade off? Whilst Westminster has been in recess MPs have been taking soundings from businesses in their constituencies. They are looking forward to communicating what they have learned to the frontbench when the House of Commons reconvenes on Tuesday.

Among the baritones leading the throat clearings has been the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, Charles Walker, who articulated what many Conservative backbenchers are thinking in an interview today with Times Radio. “Restricting people’s liberties and freedoms with very little science attached to it” was among “the biggest of policy issues” he said, and the measures should be debated “on the floor of the House of Commons. We cannot continue to have government by edict, this has been going on for six months.”

Walker’s view is that it is not just an awkward squad of Tory MPs who are annoyed by on-the-hoof policy-making reversals by a government now in the habit of “saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday.” The frustration is far broader and “is common currency across the Conservative party.” It is a view echoed by Huw Merriman, a Tory MP irritated by the latest u-turn in favour of school mask introduction and who accused the government of “making it up as we go along.”

Talking to The Critic, the Yeovil MP, Marcus Fysh, is among those who think that a test of leadership may now have to periodically include conflicting with the precautionary principle, because “we are elected to make difficult decisions for which there are both costs and benefits to be weighed.”

“We need to be getting back to normal now” Fysh maintains. “I cannot see what prolonging the furlough scheme beyond October achieves. There is a platform of rebound growth now that we need to build on.” This requires switching from subsiding inactivity to fiscal stimulus.

I cannot see what prolonging the furlough scheme beyond October achieves.

“With only three months to Christmas, a lot of businesses are absolutely depending on the country going back with gusto and the government should be focussed on doing everything it can to ensure that happens” says Fysh. “I am looking to Rishi [Sunak] to change the tax system radically to stimulate investment and productivity. We need to switch from subsidising non-activity to encouraging investment: tax simplification with flatter rates and judicious tax cuts. Some revenue can be raised by taxing online sales in the same way – a means of abolishing retail business rates altogether.”

How the Treasury deals with clawing back the cost racked-up by its unprecedented support packages may create some of the most difficult conversations within the Conservative party since Sir Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 budget pitched “wets” against “dries.” The mood music from the Treasury hints that tax rises are inevitable – just in time to clobber business and consumer confidence as they try and get back on their feet. But this time the scale of borrowing is so vast that it hard to see what scale of politically achievable tax rises would even begin to slim-down the deficit.

Much now rests on how Rishi Sunak flags his intentions. “If messages continue to be mixed it won’t be great for the economy on which all else depends” warns Fysh. “There will be MPs who will want to get that changed and I would be one of them.”

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