Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has promised to give the NHS “whatever it needs” to tackle the coronavirus crisis, as he looks at loosening the fiscal rules to allow for more borrowing and spending.
Before this week’s budget, Sunak did not say how much in additional resources the NHS would get, but indicated the government was potentially willing to write a blank cheque to help the health service cope with a pandemic.
Sunak refused to deny several times that he was looking at getting rid of the fiscal rules from the Conservative election manifesto, which commits him to balancing the books on day-to-day spending midway through this parliament.
There is speculation that the coronavirus crisis gives the government a reason to throw out the fiscal rules set just a few months ago by Sunak’s predecessor Sajid Javid.
Sunak told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I can say absolutely categorically the NHS will get whatever resources it needs to get us through this and to respond to the health crisis.”
The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.
The UN agency advises people to:
- Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
- Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
- Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
- Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.
Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.
Sunak’s assurance comes after warnings from doctors and other medical professionals that the NHS is already under too much pressure to be able to deal with a serious worsening of the coronavirus outbreak.
There are worries about whether enough beds for critically ill patients will be available, about staff falling ill and others having to take time off to care for children if schools across the country close down.
Over the weekend, the government said people could be asked to volunteer in the NHS at the peak of the outbreak.
Speaking earlier on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Sunak said he would be outlining further measures at the budget to help businesses hit by short-term financing problems as a result of trade slowing down or large sick pay bills.
“You’re right this could be a challenging period for businesses but it will be an impact for a temporary period of time,” he said. The government would be looking at helping businesses find bridging financing rather than providing bailouts, Sunak added.
He said the impact on businesses “could be significant” so the government was actively looking at how to support them through difficult periods for cashflow.
Despite dire predictions about the effects of coronavirus on the world economy, Sunak said the government would not extend the Brexit transition period beyond December.
The Scottish first minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, told Ridge it was “pretty much inevitable that we will need additional resources” in the NHS to cope with coronavirus.
She also called for a “relaxation of universal credit rules” to ensure people stayed in isolation if they had suspected coronavirus rather than trying to make appointments at job centres.
“We don’t want people who have been advised to self-isolate to minimise the risk of passing the infection on to others to be sanctioned on their benefits,” she said.
Labour’s John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said the government’s spending in this week’s budget would be “it’s nowhere near the scale we need”.
He told the Marr show it “will not deliver what we need in terms of the NHS” and warned it “has got to be the most important budget since the second world war” to deal with coronavirus, climate change and the crisis in public services.