Tory split on coronavirus has seen off any joined-up strategy

It would help if the cabinet could agree. Yet for the past seven months it has remained deeply divided, squabbling over the scientific advice and what Covid-19 might mean for the nation’s health and jobs.

Britons have become familiar with a bewildering, almost weekly stream of tactical policies, twisting this way and that, many of them in direct opposition to each other.

There was no better example than Rishi’s dinners, the eat out to help out (EOTHO) subsidy that sent millions of people into pubs, restaurants and cafes during August.

With only a few rules in place dictating how businesses should conduct themselves, it became a feeding frenzy. While many establishments invested in thermometer guns to test customers on entry, and rejected people calling themselves Minnie Mouse for the purpose of track and trace, many did not.

Such was the parlous state of the UK’s track-and-trace system during the summer, that we will never know how much this contributed to the spread of the virus. It could be that the escalating infection rate seen last week was fuelled by this one policy.

What we do know is that the EOTHO idea was met with dismay by health minister Matt Hancock and triggered an even more heated debate inside the cabinet over what quickly became a binary decision – a falling infection rate or an economic recovery, take your pick.

The effect of this wrangling and chaotic response was already apparent back in the spring when the UK jumped to the top of the league table for excess deaths per thousand of the population.

It is quite possible we will repeat this terrible victory in the next few months now that the Treasury and the health department have renewed their battle and are openly vying for supremacy.

When Sunak outlined his “winter economy plan” on Thursday, he made it clear everyone should be making their way back to work.

Ending his speech with the sub-Churchillian phrase “we must learn to live with [the virus] and live without fear”, the chancellor seemed to say that avoiding the virus will be part of daily life.

The winter plan involves a switch from the furlough scheme to a much cheaper subsidy for part-time working. To the dismay of business leaders and unions, the subsidy has been so severely cut that it is unlikely to be taken up by many employers.

Unemployment will climb and poverty will suck in more families. Worse, at least for the spread of the virus, there was an absence of realistic protection for individuals who need to self-isolate – the sum remained at £500 for 14 days.

There is cash for firms that find themselves caught in local lockdowns, but the increases in the main safety nets for households – universal credit and sick pay – are paltry, and again there was nothing in the winter plan to give them a boost.

No wonder the latest data on self-isolation from King’s College London shows that only 18.2% of people reporting Covid symptoms stayed at home. That was despite most of the people affected saying they would not leave home in those circumstances.

We know that most of the contagion comes from super-spreaders and one in 10 of the people who get the virus give it to 10 others. They need to be tracked, traced and tested by the health department, and then supported by the Treasury to stay at home.

But even when Hancock gets his act together on test and trace to find potential super-spreaders, many of these people won’t isolate themselves because the cash on offer from the Treasury is so poor.

It is not difficult to understand that without financial protection in place for those affected, the virus will continue to spread.

Gus O’Donnell, the crossbench peer and former cabinet secretary, argued last week in a lecture for the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the lack of joined-up thinking had prevented the cabinet adopting a strategy rather than a succession of tactical manoeuvres.

O’Donnell warned that slavishly taking advice from the health body Sage to the emergency Cobra meetings and then adopting highly centralised, top-down policies was a recipe for a very long depression.

He would have created a separate strategic team, included input from both health and social scientists to judge people’s likely behaviour and then devolve much of the implementation, including the monitoring of self-isolating Covid victims, to local bodies.

There was going to be a return of strategic thinking with Sunak’s elevation to chancellor. The days of endless, highly political tactical scheming seen during George Osborne’s reign at No 11 were supposed to be over.

The warring inside the cabinet, which reflects a deep split in the Tory party over how to deal with the disease, has made sure that cannot happen.

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