Morning briefing: UK’s furlough could soon cost as much as NHS

Good morning.

The government could soon be spending as much on the wages of furloughed employees as it does on the NHS, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said last night, warning: “Clearly that is not a sustainable situation”. HMRC figures released yesterday showed 6.3 million workers, almost a quarter of all PAYE employees, have been put on a government scheme that pays furloughed staff 80 per cent of their wages up to £2,500 a month. The cost to the Treasury is £8bn and rising. Sunak promised there would be “no cliff-edge” for the funding, and that he was “figuring out the most effective way to wind down the scheme and to ease people back into work in a measured way”. He faces pressure from both sides: on one, businesses warning that they cannot cope without government support; on the other, senior Conservatives worried by the growing toll of the lockdown on the nation’s finances.

Speaking of: Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, has said the government’s upcoming review of lockdown measures should focus on “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”. He said that “in some instances, it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home”, adding that employers are “struggling to fulfil orders because it is difficult to get employees back from furlough”. Charles Walker, vice-chair of the committee, said businesses faced a “bleak” future. “We need to have a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today,” he said.

Meanwhile, it emerged that fewer than 300 of the 18.1 million people who entered the UK between 1 January and the start of lockdown were quarantined. Passengers on three flights from Wuhan, China, and one from Tokyo, Japan, which was carrying passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, were the only people taken to government isolation facilities. Labour MP and member of the home affairs select committee Stephen Doughty, who obtained the figures, said the data “beggars belief”.

Global updates:

Ireland: People can now exercise within five kilometres from their home and people over 70 are allowed to venture outside, so long as they follow social distancing rules. Other lockdown measures remain in place until 18 May, when some shops will reopen.

US: The government has said it wants to borrow $3tn (£2.4tn) in the second quarter of the year, more than five times the current quarterly borrowing record, set at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

India: India reported 3,900 new cases in 24 hours, the biggest daily rise since the pandemic began. The rise could be due to increased testing. The release of the figures coincided with an easing of lockdown restrictions, which has allowed some shops to reopen.

Australia and New Zealand: The two countries officially confirmed plans for a shared “safe travel zone”. Such a zone “would be mutually beneficial, assisting our trade and economic recovery, helping kick-start the tourism and transport sectors, enhancing sporting contacts, and reuniting families and friends”, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a joint statement.

Nigeria: Restrictions were lifted yesterday in the capital Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. Markets, stores, shopping malls and construction sites were allowed to reopen.

Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says citizens can now “leave the house, wherever you want”, after people were previously restricted to travelling 100 metres from their front door. Israelis are now allowed to gather outdoors in groups of up to 20.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Why Boris Johnson should now admit his government’s failures over coronavirus

Top economists warn the UK not to repeat austerity after the Covid-19 crisis

This is the longest I have gone without being touched. My body is starting to feel like a stranger

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.