There will be a massive hit on non-NHS spends if virus worsens badly

News Letter editorialNews Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
The Budget yesterday was supposed to be a big occasion, marking the first major post-Brexit financial announcement.

Instead it has been dominated by coronavirus.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was right to emphasise that above all the NHS will be fully supported through the health challenge, and to underwrite sick pay.

The scale of the global infection is still far from clear. The formal figures of 125,000 cases and almost 5,000 deaths might massively under-state the actual position.

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While the situation in Italy is clearly very serious, some other parts of the world such as Singapore and Taiwan seem to have been able to contain the spread effectively.

The numbers of confirmed infections in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are still relatively small. But the situation could deteriorate markedly, and there will be massive financial consequences for Northern Ireland and the whole UK if so.

The chancellor yesterday announced expensive infrastructure projects such as a road tunnel under Stonehenge, in line with the government’s stated desire to push such capital projects, including the HS2 rail project. There were, however, pre-existing concerns about how all this was going to be paid for. A major health emergency will exacerbate those concerns to the point where they might not in fact go ahead.

All the political parties at Stormont have been saying they needed much more money to meet the commitments under the far-reaching New Decade New Approach agreement.

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It was unwise, particularly for unionists, to set a precedent that collapsing Stormont then leads to restoration alongside commitments to a sweeping, expensive agenda.

We all hope coronavirus will soon come under control but if not the less vital of these expensive NI commitments will have to be abandoned. And in London, the Tory government could soon face a choice between big tax rises or ruinous national debt.