Evening Standard Comment: The time for excessive caution is now past

·3-min read
Holland-Kaye argues that the excessive caution of ministers in retaining the traffic light system for travel has turned Britain into an “outlier” (PA Wire)
Holland-Kaye argues that the excessive caution of ministers in retaining the traffic light system for travel has turned Britain into an “outlier” (PA Wire)

The warning today by the boss of Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, that the airport has slumped from top spot before the pandemic to become only 10th busiest in Europe is a timely reminder of the continuing impact of Covid on this country’s economy as the Government prepares to unveil its winter plan for coping with the virus over the coming months.

Holland-Kaye argues that the excessive caution of ministers in retaining the traffic light system for travel has turned Britain into an “outlier” among its principal competitors — to the detriment of economic performance and jobs — and wants a simpler, two-tier approach instead that will make tourist and business trips far easier in future.

Early briefing ahead of the unveiling of the winter plan indicates that’s what will happen but, after yet more flip-flopping at the weekend over the issue of vaccine passports, the frustration at Heathrow highlights that what’s most important is that the UK gets clarity to allow people and businesses to prepare for the future with confidence.

In particular, the Government needs to be clear about whether it still wants to prioritise health risks over the growth and recovery of the economy, now that most are double-vaccinated and it is more certain than it has been on where it stands on issues such as mask wearing and returning to the office or not.

Critically too, if MPs want to include any fallback positions in case infections, hospitalisation or death rates rise unexpectedly fast, they must set out with clarity to the public exactly when the trigger points for such action would come.

Firm positions must be adopted too on booster vaccinations and vaccinating children. This newspaper will make judgment when the final details are published. But after enduring so much over the past 18 months, people must be given clarity as they resume a more normal existence.

We need a growth plan

Last week, with a rise in National Insurance payments, the Government announced what was in effect a budget. As with any budget, it takes time to digest what it means and to understand its impact.

The director general of the CBI Tony Danker spoke for many of us today when he highlighted concerns about the direction the Government is headed, concerns from business we reported in our City pages last week.

Britain’s economy has faced two shocks in the last two years: Brexit and Covid. Recovery will mean paying back the debt and competing effectively. To do so we need to increase competitiveness and have a plan for growth.

There is a risk, as Danker warned, that by turning to business to “carry the load” — something that may be the most politically palatable option — the Government is causing long-term damage and doing little to help the UK’s competitiveness globally.

Last week’s measures will hit some of the UK’s most important growth engines — SMEs and the self-employed — many of which are based in London. These are the geese that lay the golden eggs. The Government keeps repeating it helped business out during the pandemic and it did. But it’s not enough — stimulating growth is a vital path out of the pandemic.

It is right to prioritise putting our finances on an even keel, but we also need a plan to support enterprise and attract investment. Reassuring words are not enough. The Government needs to act fast.

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