Leader - Boosters needed to stop virus spiralling

Rishi Sunak has resisted calls to extend the UK Government’s job retention scheme ahead of his Autumn Statement this week.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will deliver a Budget statement on Wednesday.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will deliver a Budget statement on Wednesday.

Furlough has protected millions of jobs since the country went into lockdown in March 2020, when few could have predicted it would still be in operation 18 months later.

But just as the Chancellor protested he had “no magic wand” to make rising costs disappear, there is also – as former prime minister Theresa May might have put it – “no magic money tree” for job retention.

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Instead, there is an enormous pile of national debt. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates furlough has cost around £66 billion. Mr Sunak said he has “had to grapple with an economic shock, the biggest in 300 years, borrowing that [is] the highest since World War Two”.

And yet the coronavirus statistics are all going in the wrong direction. Calls are growing for "Plan B" and the reintroduction of some restrictions south of the Border, and Scotland's Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has said there is “absolutely a risk” the COP26 climate summit that begins in Glasgow next week will lead to a spike in cases. As 25,000 delegates descend on Scotland from around the world, it would be remarkable if this was not the case.

With winter setting in and concerns among many over the possibility of gatherings at Christmas, it seems entirely possible Scots may also see restrictions reintroduced in the aftermath of COP26, as public health expert Professor Devi Sridhar suggested last week.

For these reasons, Mr Sunak was right to stress the importance of booster jabs and the vaccination campaign, where recent progress has been patchy at best.

Former prime minister Tony Blair observed last week: “Once well ahead of the rest of Europe, we’re now behind Germany, France and Italy in terms of cases and even vaccinations.”

A report by Mr Blair’s institute warns a fourth wave of the pandemic could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed this winter and that action must be taken now.

Both the UK and the Scottish Governments should redouble efforts to ensure as many jabs are administered as necessary to avoid the disease spiralling out of control again.