The chancellor has repeated his warning that the government will not be able to protect every business and household during the coronavirus outbreak, admitting: “These are tough times and there will be more to come.”
Rishi Sunak told the government’s daily coronavirus news conference that the UK economy was “fundamentally sound” and he was confident there would be a “bounceback in growth” once the crisis has passed.
It comes after the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent fiscal watchdog, said Britain’s economy could shrink by 35% in the second quarter and see unemployment jump by two million because of COVID-19.
Mr Sunak said some of the figures were “not surprising” as the country is getting to grips with a crisis “unlike anything we’ve seen before”.
He said: “I genuinely don’t believe this is a time for ideology or orthodoxy – this is an unprecedented time and unprecedented crisis and that calls for an unprecedented economic response.
“So in that sense it’s not surprising to see some of these figures because what we’re dealing with here is unlike anything we’ve seen before which is why we’ve put in place the measures we have.”
The OBR set out an estimate of the potential impact of the pandemic based on a three-month lockdown followed by a three-month period when restrictions are only partially lifted.
But Mr Sunak said that had the government not taken the actions it had, “the situation would be much worse”.
“In other words, our plan is the right plan,” he declared.
The chancellor acknowledged that things would be difficult in the short-term, saying: “This is going to be hard, our economy’s going to take a significant hit and as I’ve said before that’s not an abstract thing, people are going to feel that in their jobs and in their household incomes.”
He added: “I think the measures we’ve put in place will help and then as we get through this it will mean that we can recover quickly and strongly and get our lives and economy back to normal.”
Questions have been asked about what the long-term implications of the outbreak could be, in particular on the nation’s finances if the UK has a high level of debt.
Mr Sunak said the government would have to “take stock” of the public finances and “make the right decisions” at that juncture – a hint that cuts could be in the offing.
But the chancellor added: “We remain very committed to the agenda that we set out before which was about levelling up and spreading opportunity around this country, and indeed I believe this can still be a critical part of how we get back to normal here.”
And he stressed that government measures to help households and businesses were “largely temporary” and “do not need to be repeated on a year by year basis”.
Mr Sunak continued: “So hopefully that will allow us to get to a sustainable position reasonably soon after we exit.”
A think tank has suggested the government should scrap the pensions triple-lock so the economic burden is spread fairly.
Mr Sunak did not explicitly rule out the idea when asked about it, saying: “You’re kind of drawing me into writing future budgets here today which is probably a difficult thing to do.”
Meanwhile, another 778 patients with the coronavirus have died in hospitals across the UK, the Department of Health has announced.
It takes the nationwide total to 12,107 – but the actual figure will be higher as it does not include deaths in the community.
According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in 10 coronavirus-related deaths in England and Wales happened outside hospitals in the week ending 3 April.
There are growing calls for care home deaths to be published daily after England’s chief medical officer said 13.5% of them had recorded coronavirus cases.
The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, has warned that the spread of COVID-19 in care homes “has largely gone under the radar” due to the way data on deaths has been collected.
Public Health England medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle said the government would like to have “much more rapid data” on deaths in care homes and was “working towards” having this on a daily basis.
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One focus of the outbreak has been whether the government’s response has been swift enough.
There have, for example, been claims that the UK should have gone into lockdown sooner to try and halt the spread of COVID-19.
The chancellor acknowledged that mistakes would be made, given the UK was facing an “unprecedented situation”.
“Are we going to be absolutely perfect in every single thing we do, at the pace we are having to do it? Of course not,” he said.
But Mr Sunak said the government was doing “what we think is in the best interests of the country and people” and would be making improvements where necessary.
Professor Doyle acknowledged that the response could have been different if more was known about the coronavirus at an earlier stage.
She added: “Yes, of course, we could do things better and that’s why we keep talking to our neighbours so that we can learn that.”