Rishi’s Jeremiad Against ‘Sick-Note Britain’ is a Sick Joke, Given His Role in Paying People to Stay at Home and Not Work During the Lockdown

Rishi Sunak trades freely – too freely – in the idea that he is a decent man doing his best with a terrible hand. In a speech earlier this month at the Centre for Social Justice, he invoked it again. Sunak was baffled as to why, on top of everything else, 2.8 million people are now permanently out of commission due to illness, double the number since 2020. “In the period since the pandemic, something has gone wrong,” he said.

The euphemism has a double meaning. Sunak is too polite to spell out the link between lockdown and the rise in long-term illness: that people took their cues from a two-year enforced halt to all commerce and started phoning it in. And if the cause isn’t interrogated, if it really is down to simple selfishness and ill will, then the issue can be turned into an old pre-pandemic set piece – of welfare bums versus the productive citizenry.

Like most people, Sunak would sooner forget about lockdown. Caledonian Road, the new state-of-the-nation social realist novel of 2020s Britain, is set not during lockdown, but in 2021, its furtive aftermath; and the event takes a firm backseat to that new and fresh theme of middle-aged public intellectuals getting cancelled. Can’t we now just treat the whole thing as a freak spasm, and try to pick up where we left off?

No, let’s not. For anyone under the age of 50, lockdown was the marquee economic event of their life. It meant the greatest upward transfer of wealth in human history. It bankrupted a fifth of American small businesses. It put the final nail in the fiscal coffin of those terminally luckless millennials who graduated just after the crash of 2008. And it’s almost entirely responsible for the current rash of inflation, having fried global supply chains long before the attack on Ukraine. In Britain, it meant the borrowing of £300 billion, wiping out 10 years of fiscal retrenchment in a month.

Lockdown brought about the final insolvency of Britain’s social model. It showed that a large tranche of the British middle classes have no economic function. It destroyed some people’s livelihoods by decree and enriched others, and in so doing stretched the idea of a relationship between hard work and material reward – always a dubious one – so far as to finally snap. It showed that to treat modern British society as a sort of elaborate swindle against the young is a better heuristic than most.

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