LONDON (AP) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic had been a “disaster” for Britain when he announced it would issue a spending statement to get the country – and its faltering conservative government – back on track.
As the UK comes out of a three-month freeze, Johnson has made big money promises in schools, housing and infrastructure, trying to move on from an outbreak that killed more than 43,000 British – the worst confirmed death toll in Europe.
“This is a disaster,” Johnson admitted Monday. “Let’s not spoil our words. I mean, this was an absolute nightmare for the country and the country has been in deep shock.
“But in those moments you have the opportunity to change and do things better,” he told Times Radio. “Now is the time to give our country the skills, infrastructure and long-term investment we need.”
Johnson pledged a “Rooseveltian approach,” calling upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression. Johnson’s first announcement was £ 1 billion ($ 1.25 billion) to build new schools. The British leader plans to unveil a series of other infrastructure projects this week.
Johnson won a large majority in Parliament in December with a promise to rebalance Britain’s London-dominated economy and revive the long-neglected former industrial regions of central and northern England.
Those plans were upset by COVID-19. The official death toll in the UK is 43,550, the third highest in the world after the United States and Brazil, and the actual figure is likely to be higher.
“What we’re going to do in the coming months is really doubling our original agenda, which was all about investing … in infrastructure, in education, in technology, to bring the country together,” he said.
Critics want to know where the money comes from. The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has brought Britain into a deep recession – the Bank of England estimates that the UK’s economy could end about 20% smaller in the first half of 2020 than at the beginning of the year.
The UK will again face an economic shock at the end of this year when a transitional period after Brexit ends, driving the country out of the massive single market of the 27-country bloc.
Talks with the EU on a new trade agreement have stalled amid wide disparities on key issues, including fishing rights and competition. If no agreement is signed by the end of the year, the UK will face tariffs and other trade barriers with the EU, its largest trading partner.
Despite the bleak economic outlook, Johnson said it would be “a mistake” to revert to the austerity of earlier conservative governments, which have cut government spending since 2010 in an effort to reduce government debt swelled by the global financial crisis from 2008.
Despite his efforts to turn the page, Johnson, who was admitted to intensive care with the coronavirus in April, will likely have to consider the way his government is dealing with the outbreak.
Critics blame the government for being too slow to impose a nationwide shutdown, for not getting adequate protective equipment to medical workers, and for screwing up the launch of a test-and-trace system to fight new outbreaks.
The number of deaths and new infections is now decreasing, but slowly, and Britain is lagging behind its European neighbors in reopening society and the economy.
In another sign of Johnson’s attempt to regain control, the UK’s top official announced his resignation late on Sunday. Mark Sedwill leaves his dual job as chief of the civil servant and national security adviser after reports of disagreements with Johnson’s powerful chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
Johnson has appointed David Frost, the EU’s trade negotiator, as a member of the National Security Post. The appointment raised some eyebrows because Frost is more of a political appointee than a neutral official.
Opposition party leader Keir Starmer said it was “clear that the Prime Minister (Sedwill) wanted to move and that he was determined to do so.”
“Why you’re doing this in the midst of a pandemic and crisis instead of really focusing on the crisis is a question the Prime Minister has to answer,” he said.
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