Monday 5 October 2020 11:45 am

Khan: 'False dichotomy' between saving the economy and saving lives

Sadiq Khan is Mayor of London

I want to speak directly to London’s business leaders at this unprecedented time.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a sole trader or a small business owner, whether you work for a start-up or one of London’s biggest employers – this is the most precarious period for business we have ever faced.

As your Mayor, I want to speak to you directly about the challenges we face.

Before I was elected in 2016, I promised you that I’d be the most pro-business Mayor London has ever had. I’ve striven to show you that I’m not what some of you would have expected from a Labour politician.

Read more: Khan warns no accurate picture of how far Covid-19 is spreading

And I’ve done everything I can to deliver on my promise – banging the drum to attract investment from around the world with the #LondonIsOpen campaign, lobbying the Government on your behalf on the issues that matter most to you, like Brexit, business rates and investment in infrastructure and housing, while providing the direct financial assistance that my office allows.   

However, nothing has tested us quite like this crisis. One of my roles as Mayor has been to advocate on behalf of our city.

Firstly, to ensure that the Government does everything possible to protect the lives of our citizens, especially the most vulnerable – the first responsibility of any society. And, secondly, to protect jobs and livelihoods and to ensure we are as ready as possible to recover quickly.

Read more: Bailey warns Mayor must get Londoners back to the office

These aims are not contradictory. In fact, they go hand in hand. It’s no coincidence that the countries that have tackled the virus most effectively have suffered the smallest economic downturns. And, sadly, it’s no coincidence that the UK has suffered both the highest excess death rate in Europe as well as one of the deepest recessions.

Until we have a vaccine or a mass testing regime, the only way to open up our economy without the virus spreading and more people dying is by having mitigating measures in place – alongside a functioning test and trace system. It is in this area, more than any other, that our Government has catastrophically failed us.

“False dichotomy”

Until such a system is working properly, the supposed choice between saving lives and saving the economy – between restrictions and freedoms – is an entirely false one. This false dichotomy suits only those who refuse to accept the true reality of the situation and the limited choices the Government has left us with.

The truth is the virus is now spreading widely and quickly across London again.  Because of the failures of the test and trace system, we don’t have an accurate picture of the levels of the virus in different parts of our city. But all our other health indicators – such as 111 calls, GP visits, hospital admissions and the number of Londoners in Intensive Care Units – are accelerating in the wrong direction.

Of course, we must strike a balance in the measures we take to slow the virus – always led by the science on what will have the biggest impact.  That’s why, having seen evidence from around the country that the measure may be counterproductive, I’ve called for the Government to review the 10pm closure of hospitality businesses. 

But the later we take the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus, the more severe these steps will have to be and the longer they will have to last in order to drive down infection rates. The absolute worst possible thing for London’s businesses right now would be another full lockdown.

And if the Government repeats its failures from March by acting too slowly, the restrictions will inevitably have to be more draconian and longer-lasting when they do come – causing more economic damage in the long run. 

Preserving freedoms now and allowing the virus to spread is the very definition of a false economy. It will not save London’s retail, hospitality, tourism and cultural sectors, it will only make things worse.

If the infection rate increases and people hear more reports about hundreds of deaths every day, as happened in March and April, increasing numbers of Londoners, fearful of the virus, will work from home, domestic and international tourism will further reduce, and ever fewer people will venture out to use our restaurants, shops and bars. 

Government must support the capital

The only way London’s businesses will be able to survive this crisis is if the Government takes the right measures to stop the spread of the virus now, and provides the full financial support needed to prop up the economy and protect jobs.

Along with London’s businesses, I will continue to advocate for the Government to reverse their downgrading of support for workers and businesses. We need to see a much bigger and more expansive job protection scheme, targeted grants and loans for the worst-affected sectors and geographic areas, and an extension to the business rates holiday, which is due to end in March. 

Other similar countries are spending multiples of what our Government has so far committed – and have been clear that they will continue to do so for as long as needed.

Central London’s contribution to the UK economy is unique.  It’s our country’s economic and cultural powerhouse and a gateway for global tourism and investment into the rest of Britain. Over many decades, it has contributed far more to our national prosperity than taxpayers have spent to support its growth. 

Last year, the combined output of London’s Central Activities Zone and Canary Wharf accounted for over a tenth of all UK output.  Permanent damage to it now would downgrade the prosperity of the whole of the country for many decades to come. If London doesn’t recover, our nation won’t recover.

That’s why it’s in all our interests for the Government to give central London the support it needs to see us through the worst of this pandemic. It’s why I’ll continue to work with businesses to put in place the plans we need to recover and rebuild as quickly as possible when this crisis passes.  And it’s why I will continue personally to champion London’s economy and bang the drum for our fantastic businesses at home and around the world.

Read more: London coronavirus cases in your borough

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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