The Guardian view on lockdown economics: protect and survive


The weekend video in which Nigel Farage laid the ground for the relaunch of the Brexit party as an anti-lockdown movement was recorded in the main lounge of Donald Trump’s Washington DC hotel. It was an appropriate location. With characteristic opportunism and cunning, Mr Farage has spotted the potential for channelling the same kind of economic insecurity that helped deliver Brexit and Trump into a popular rebellion against Covid-19 restrictions this winter. Other populist politicians of Mr Farage’s stamp are spying similar openings. In Italy last week, Matteo Salvini threatened a legal challenge against 6pm curfew restrictions on bars and restaurants. In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland has described a partial lockdown that came into effect on Monday as excessive and inappropriate.

These are signs of the times that Boris Johnson must read correctly, ahead of a winter in which maintaining social cohesion will be both vital and challenging. The prime minister was right to belatedly announce a lockdown in England at the weekend, just as he was wrong not to impose a shorter “circuit-breaker” in October. The unarguable evidence, presented again on Monday in parliament, is that Covid-19 is once again threatening to overwhelm hospitals. Unchecked, this second wave could exact a greater toll in lives than the first. But having finally acted, Mr Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, must now do more to mitigate the economic pain that is about to be unleashed on communities driven to the limits of their endurance. For countless households, this new lockdown will be a blow upon a bruise.

The Guardian has reported that food aid charities are witnessing an influx of the “newly hungry” – formerly comfortable middle-income families now in need of food banks and benefits. An estimated 6 million people have fallen behind in paying bills. Tenants on reduced income, or relying on universal credit, have steadily fallen into arrears, while the newly unemployed must compete with hundreds of other applicants for jobs offering only the minimum wage. Savings have been exhausted and state support has been patchy and sometimes unforthcoming, particularly for the self-employed and freelancers. For the millions without a secure job that allows them to work from home, the fear that winter restrictions could tip them into acute hardship is real.

Despite this almost three in four people support the coming lockdown, according to YouGov. But the state of the economy is understandably beginning to rival health as a cause of public concern. To help allay those fears, Mr Sunak should make permanent the £20 weekly uplift to universal credit, which is due to end in the spring. Far more generous and better targeted support must also be introduced for the self-employed and freelancers, nearly 3 million of whom will not be able to access the new round of grants announced on Monday. Calls by churches and poverty campaigners for a “debt jubilee” for households struggling with bills should be given serious consideration. The successful Everyone In policy to house homeless people should be revived. Across the board, basic economic security must be the minimum offer this winter to those who are being immiserated by Covid-19.

The alternative is to allow Mr Farage and libertarian elements of the Conservative party to mine seams of popular discontent, fomenting discord and distrust at a time of national crisis. Over the weekend, anti-curfew protesters were out on the streets in Italy and Spain. In Florence, some chanted: “We are not extremists, we are not fascists, we are hungry.” Mr Farage will have taken note. So should the prime minister.