Today’s problems can be traced to furlough

Tories still believe furlough is a measure worth celebrating
The Conservative party still believe furlough is a measure worth celebrating - Pippa Fowles /AFP
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Four years ago this week, Rishi Sunak announced one of the most expensive decisions a British government has ever taken: the introduction of furlough. Millions of people would be paid to do nothing, with 80 per cent of their salaries funded by other taxpayers. Such “free” money was instantly popular, and the newly-installed chancellor was hailed as the saviour of the nation at a time of heightened uncertainty due to the rapidly-advancing Covid pandemic. Few thought to question what the longer-term consequences would be.

They are now. Furlough could well be the policy most responsible for the mess the country is now in. The billions spent on the scheme still have to be repaid, limiting the Government’s fiscal room for manoeuvre. It damaged the country’s culture of work, buttressing an assumption that people will always be bailed out, even in circumstances where they might once have been expected to stand on their own two feet.

Furlough probably also lengthened the period the country stayed in lockdown. Cushioning workers from the ruinous economic effects of the restrictions meant there was little public pressure to return to normality, unlike in countries with better-designed support schemes. The proportion of people in employment in the UK is below its pre-pandemic level.

It is an indication of the state the Tories are in, therefore, that they still think furlough is a measure worth celebrating. As Fraser Nelson writes, the party has been trumpeting Mr Sunak’s role in launching the policy, claiming that it resulted in “14 million jobs saved”. It is perhaps understandable that the Tories want to hark back to a period when their opinion poll lead looked insurmountable. But voters are rarely grateful for long when they are bribed with their own money.

Mr Sunak was not an enthusiastic proponent of the Covid restrictions, and perhaps would rather be remembered as the man who helped stop the rush towards another unnecessary lockdown over the omicron variant. His Eat Out to Help Out policy has also been unfairly maligned. It supported the hospitality industry at a crucial time, and helped counteract the Project Fear message that it was dangerous for people to leave their own homes.

But since becoming Prime Minister, he has not carved out a new narrative on the lockdowns, or on what the country needs to do to recover from them. It is a missed opportunity at the very least.

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