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Editorial: Coronavirus demands a unified and collective response

IT SAYS something unflattering about our society in Britain when so many of today’s Covid-19 headlines are about the falling FTSE 100 index and a moratorium on English Premier League football matches.

In itself, the stock exchange market in corporate shares bears little relation to the real economy. In most cases, their nominal value has long been spent on investment — whether socially useful or not — by the company concerned and they now change hands wholly in the service of speculative profit. Only a small proportion of share dealings arise from the flotation of new shares in order to fund investment, some of which does nothing to benefit our economy or society more generally.  

That gamblers in possession of shares now have to face falling prices need not concern most of us unduly, unless pension and insurance funds are too heavily exposed to vulnerable shareholdings and therefore probably in breach of business law or good practice.

Driving short-term speculators into longer-term bonds, many of which help fund public expenditure, is no bad thing.  

Nonetheless, it’s true that this coronavirus crisis could have severe impacts on the economy here and internationally. Interrupted transport lines and workers staying at home will depress levels of economic activity, perhaps even to the point of reducing food supplies in the shops.

The British government should, therefore, be taking steps to ensure extra production of essential but increasingly scarce medical goods such as soap, hand-gel and face masks. It should also be preparing to impose selective price controls if necessary to prevent profiteering at different stages of the food chain. 

This is in addition to the rationing of anti-contagion and staple food products which clearly needs to be enforced by the big retail chains themselves.

Furthermore, measures must be prepared in reserve to ensure that essential supplies can be collected and taken to hospitals, medical and emergency service staff, care homes for the elderly and other residential institutions. 

Many non-violent prisoners should be released on licence as quickly as possible. 

Testing facilities and protective aids must be readily available to all workers in vulnerable occupations such as healthcare and refuse collection and processing. 

Many public health and civil emergency measures are now the legal responsibility of local authorities. Yet they have been starved of funds for the past decade, cutting many budgets in these particular areas by up to 30 per cent and more. 

For all the progressive intentions paraded by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the Commons dispatch box last Wednesday, there was no sign that he plans to repair much of the damage done by the Tories and — let us not forget — their Lib Dem sidekicks.

Plenty more can still be done to counter the spread of Covid-19, with or without significant financial implications. 

Selective but systematic checks on air, sea and rail arrivals from overseas have still to be put in place. Home and drive-by swab testing for the virus needs to be extended, especially in areas threatened by a significant outbreak or where new infections occur.

A united public response is now essential to meet the coronavirus challenge. If ever there is a time for conspiracy theories, the childish abuse of government ministers or anti-Brexit point-scoring, this is not it. 

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