Boris Johnson has called for a new, investment-led approach to the economy as he said coronavirus had been “an absolute nightmare” for the UK.
The prime minister used a rare live interview to promise the aftermath of the pandemic would not result in a return to austerity.
In his own round of media appearances, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said it was “staggering” the government was waiting unitl autumn to set a budget, and accused ministers of a lack of planning over reopening schools.
Johnson, speaking to Times Radio on its first day of broadcasting, also pushed back against the idea of an imminent inquiry into the scale of Covid-19 deaths in the UK, saying this was too soon.
“I happen to think that the moment is not right now, in the middle of really getting things going, still dealing with the pandemic, when everybody is flat out,” he said.
“I don’t think the moment is right now for consecrating a huge amount of official time to all that, but we are learning lessons the whole time and we obviously will draw the right conclusions for the future.”
Johnson said it was time for a “Rooseveltian approach to the UK”, referencing the former US president’s programme of economy-boosting public works in the 1930s under his New Deal policy, including new spending on schools.
“This has been a disaster, let’s not mince our words, this has been an absolute nightmare for the country,” he said about coronavirus. “The country has gone through a profound shock. But in those moments you have the opportunity to change and to do things better. We really want to build back better, to do things differently, to invest in infrastructure, transport, broadband – you name it.”
While refusing to specifically rule out any spending cuts, Johnson said his aim would be to invest to help the economy recover. “You have to be careful and the chancellor will be setting out our plans in the spending review in the autumn.
“But in the end what you can’t do at this moment is go back to what people called austerity, it wasn’t actually austerity but people called it austerity, and I think that would be a mistake.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Starmer called for a July budget to tackle looming mass unemployment.
He said: “It’s staggering that in light of the economic crisis that is about to descend upon us that we are not having a July budget that puts jobs at the centre of economic recovery.”
Starmer also accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” over reopening schools.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “There has been a total lack of planning. From the day the schools were shut down, it was obvious what needed to happen to get them back open again.
“You needed a risk assessment, and you needed to look at the space. I’ve talked to loads of headteachers, and the points they have made to me were obvious and practical and could have been overcome.”
Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.
How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.
Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back in a second wave?
This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.
Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.
Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.
In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that CHina had previously been able to lift.
What are experts worried about?
Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.
The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.
In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.
He added: “If you could put up Nightingale hospitals – a good thing to do – you can certainly put up temporary classrooms, you can certainly take over libraries, community centres.
“Had there been work on this from the day the schools closed down, I genuinely think we could have had all our children back in school by now, but the government was asleep at the wheel, didn’t get to this until too late in the day, and now we’re in the situation where children will be able to do other things this weekend, but not be in school on Monday.”