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Just Why Do The Tories Want To Keep Building Sites Open In The Coronavirus Lockdown?

By Paul Waugh

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Boz the builder

When he delivered the first ever digital-only press conference in Downing Street, Matt Hancock could have been forgiven for having mixed feelings. The only MP to have launched his own app (snappily called ‘Matt Hancock’), the creator of the title of ‘Digital Secretary’ (rather than the oh-so-analogue moniker of ‘Culture Secretary’), the biggest advocate of video healthcare: Hancock was born for this little bit of history.

And as he held court in No.10, the place which he dreamed last summer of making his own home (yes, he was a Tory leadership contender), he did look the part. Sombre about the coronavirus crisis, but passionate about the NHS effort to combat it, it felt like he was trying on the prime ministerial shoes for size – and they fitted him just fine.

Of course, no politician would ever have wanted their moment in the spotlight under such awful circumstances. The biggest ever UK daily death toll from Covid-19 – a rise of 87 – took the total to 422 lives lost to the disease. Ominously, 21 of the new deaths were reported by the London NHS trust that includes Northwick Park hospital, which declared a ‘critical incident’ as it ran out of intensive care beds.

The brand new temporary ‘Nightingale Hospital’, being set up with military help in the London Excel conference centre to provide 4,000 new beds, underlined the scale of the challenge now facing the capital. But when Hancock revealed 11,000 former medics had answered the call to help the NHS more widely, he was rightly proud of their public service.

I suspect many people under lockdown will enthusiastically join his new plan for 250,000 volunteers to help with shopping, medicine delivery and other support for the 1.5m people most at risk in their own homes for the next 12 weeks. If this is a long war against coronavirus, the volunteer scheme could be both Dunkirk (an army of civilian helpers) and the Battle of Britain (outsmarting that mightier enemy) rolled into one.‌

Still, given that London is the place where most deaths are occuring, it seems outrageous to many that its Tube trains are rammed with people. Many are often no more than two feet away from each other, let alone two metres. This felt like herd immunity, cattle-truck style. And today we saw Hancock and Boris Johnson clashing with Mayor Sadiq Khan, each screaming at the other: Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?‌

During the digital press conference (yes, as the pic above proves, I looked like a vicar in a hostage video, though I blame the dog downstairs who kept me in the attic), I asked Hancock about those complaints from NHS staff forced to travel on crammed Underground carriages. His answer laid bare the limits of the cross-party consensual approach that had so far been taken in tackling the disease.

The health secretary proceeded to take a huge swipe at Khan for cutting Tube services, saying they should be ‘running in full’ and there was ‘no good reason’ for the overcrowding. Khan’s office swiftly hit back saying that was “simply not true” as 33% of staff were off sick or self-isolating. This was no one-off either, as No.10 went out of its way earlier to tell us hacks that the PM had raised his own concern about “the issue of reduced services”.‌

City Hall insists it has genuine staff shortages, but Downing Street clearly thinks the Tube could somehow run more trains. They can’t both be right. As a former Mayor of London himself, does Johnson know something we don’t? If not, why ramp up the most serious public row yet over the coronavirus?

Perhaps it’s down to No.10 being sick of being bounced into things by non-Tory members of the Cobra emergency committee. Several allies of the PM are still seething that Nicola Sturgeon talked of school closures before he did last week, and Khan certainly raised in the Cobra meeting last night that keeping building sites open in London is a real problem. He wants to stop all construction apart from the minimum needed for safety.

So just why are construction workers not told to down tools by the UK government, as Sturgeon has demanded (a point Wales’ Mark Drakeford today echoed)? As I put it to Hancock today, some will cynically suspect the reason is not unconnected with the Tories pulling in £1m in pre-election donations from housing developers. Even Conservatives in rural areas have long muttered that the party’s cosy relations with the housebuilding industry threatens to tear up their green and pleasant land.

Yet the failure to ban construction work in this lockdown may be simpler. First, the complex nature of the chancellor’s self-employed wage support plan means it could be days if not weeks away. Second, many builders (like White Van Man and Woman) voted Tory in last year’s election. Third, there’s a wider worry that cancelling such a big part of economic activity would plunge the nation into an even deeper crisis. Only today, the latest Markit data pointed to a collapse that would spark a serious recession.

There’s also no small irony in the fact that only two weeks ago – yes just two weeks ago – Rishi Sunak was unveiling a budget which trumpeted massive infrastructure spending and lots and lots more construction work. They were Rishi Rich and Bozza the Builder remember? In theory, the promise of billions of pounds of future work ought to keep the industry afloat despite a temporary lockdown.

But reality may be much more grim for job losses. And perhaps the real issue with construction is how coronavirus is laying bare an industry which is usually ignored because it rolls on regardless. One building firm boss emailed me today to say the industry had appalling payment processes, that big contractors bully smaller ones, that many firms go bust then resurface “ready to dupe the next subcontractor in the queue”. Add in zero-hours for some, health and safety fears for others and it’s no wonder the PM wants to steer clear of this mess of problems unless he absolutely has to.

But if this virus death toll gets much worse, Johnson may have to shut down most building sites (many of their suppliers are shutting anyway) and put the nation’s physical health before its economic health. A wider shutdown would also fit with the pattern of his handling of the crisis so far: hold off, hold off, then finally submit to the inevitable. Can he fix it? Yes he Khan.

Quote Of The Day

“In three weeks’ time we will be able to say whether or not the path that we’ve followed needs any further intensification, or whether there are one or two of the existing restrictions that may be capable of being lifted.”

Michael Gove signals the lockdown could get even tougher

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Couples who don’t live together should either avoid each other completely or move in together for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, the deputy chief medical officer Dr Jennie Harries has said.

New viewing figures showed that a record 27 million people watched Boris Johnson‘s live televised address on the lockdown. A new poll showed a huge 93% of the public supported the draconian measures.

No.10 confirmed that anyone found by police to have breached the lockdown conditions faced a £30 fine. The sum could be increased “significantly” if necessary to ensure public compliance.

Sports Direct confirmed it will not open its stores to the public following criticism by ministers.‌

The Department of Health came under fire after sending mixed messages to women over the possibility of allowing abortions at home during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Contingencies Fund Bill – to pay for the Treasury’s wage support scheme – proposes a “modest” increase in the size of the UK’s Contingencies fund – from 2% to 50%.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games – due to begin on 24 July – have been postponed until next year

What I’m Reading

Syria Reports First Case Of Coronavirus – ReliefWeb

The Deadly Charts Of The Global Pandemic – FT

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