It now looks, though, as if the economy will continue to be asphyxiated for weeks. By the time the chokehold is released, many companies will have breathed their last. At that point, letting surviving firms reopen will have less impact because, with everyone else also having had to cut back, there will be fewer customers.
We may soon be getting used to something that we thought we had seen off forever: mass unemployment. As tax receipts fall and benefits claims rise, a government that has had to borrow record sums will find itself having either to raise taxes even further or inflate its debts away. Either course will further damage competitiveness and growth. We could be in for the kind of stagnation that we experienced during the Heath‑Wilson years – and partly for the same reasons.
In retrospect, we can see that the collapse of the 1970s was, in some senses, a delayed consequence of the Second World War. During that conflict, as with the coronavirus, the government ran up massive debts while expanding its powers. Having acquired those powers on a supposedly contingent basis, it was slow to relinquish them when the peace came. Identity cards lasted until 1952; food rationing until 1954; conscription until 1960. Some of the nationalisations, requisitions and economic controls remained until the Thatcher reforms.
Will the current pandemic be followed by a single-minded focus on growth, or will voters cling to the authoritarianism that they demand during the crisis itself?
On the one hand, politicians who prioritise jobs and living standards will be heard with a new urgency. It will be awkward, after this, to argue that we are too obsessed with GDP, or that we should all be prepared to suffer a little for the sake of the planet. After all, we are currently experiencing precisely what Extinction Rebellion types wanted: less economic activity, lower trade, reduced carbon emissions, grounded planes – and greater equality. People with assets have seen their net worth collapse. People on benefits, by contrast, have seen no reduction in their incomes. But can anyone doubt that a reduction in growth – less “obsession with GDP” – none the less hits the poor hardest?
For some Telegraph readers, the most inconvenient aspect of the crisis has been losing their cleaners. But, for people who actually work as cleaners, or in any other part of the cash-in-hand economy, the virus is not an inconvenience but a job-killer. A world without growth will not be so indulgent of Greta-style radicalism.