Newspaper and broadcast headlines are naturally dominated at the moment by the Prime Minister’s admission to intensive care on Monday. Yet if, as the nation hopes, his condition improves quickly, one phrase will increasingly be on Britain’s lips, as we come out of the Easter bank holiday next week: ‘exit strategy’.
As with much during this crisis, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London was ahead of the curve, kicking off the debate about how and when it could emerge during an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Newspapers, among the industries worst affected by the lockdown, appear keen to fuel that debate and lend editorial weight to it. It has also become taken up by the new Labour leader since his election on Saturday.
For Number 10, the initial stance – probably at least until around the middle of next week, will be to resist the debate as premature, continuing to point to other countries who are in similar positions to the UK. However, there are a small number of EU countries who look to be ready to loosen the rules, and even after a short period of restrictions here, the public will want some hope of normality returning.
Therefore, if the glimpses of hope in recent data develop into something more sustained, it looks set to emerge as the key theme of the second half of this month. The Government will also certainly extend the lockdown – but the difference between the current phase to the next one will be a more active discussion about how and when we might see something that looks at least a little more like normal life. And while the sad and worrying deterioration in the PM’s condition appears to have drawn a line on hostile intra-Whitehall briefing, those divisions will return as the exit strategy debate comes to the fore.
For the Health Secretary, the greatest risk is of a resurgence in infection rates that rips up the ground made over the past fortnight. Yet, the Treasury will be acutely aware that, by the end of the month, it may be daily figures on company closures and job losses, rather than mortality rates, that are on the rise – perhaps fueled by growing concerns about access to loans and, for the self-employed in particular, income.
Noises from some other Departments, like Defra, which is enthusiastic about food businesses reopening, will probably translate into support for the Chancellor’s position around the cabinet table. But others remain acutely aware of the risk the virus hits harder in the Autumn than it has in the Spring.
An evolving approach to engagement with business
Engagement and consultation with business will be as important for the Government in the development of an exit strategy as it has been during the lockdown. On this front, the abnormal is gradually being normalised with structures and processes – albeit imperfect ones – emerging in Whitehall across the two main intersections with the private sector: support for business and support from business.
Support for Business: BEIS has instituted sector support teams to manage issues arising from the myriad of complex and hurriedly designed business support schemes. Their temporary nature is underlined by the fact that the hospitality sector team is led by a civil servant who usually focuses on nuclear innovation. But, nonetheless, they are up and running. Public Health England has echoed that approach, publishing sector specific guidance yesterday evening.
Meanwhile, external Relations teams across Whitehall are doing their best to triage issues to the right policy leads, with inevitable bottlenecks around the most contentious areas.
Support from business
NHS England / Improvement has a team responsible for strategic partnerships while the Cabinet Office is now processing all unsolicited, ad-hoc offers of support for NHS Nightingale. Consultancy firms, hired by the Department of Health, are contacting some firms directly.
MHCLG is leading on the distribution of food to vulnerable people, working closely with Defra on the supply side and local government officials at the coalface.
Overall, there is appetite from the civil service to listen and, where it works, collaborate while bandwidth and improvised structures can cause limitations and occasional brick walls.