UK Treasury chief shows no sign of turning off spending taps

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Cyclists ride along a quiet Oxford Street, London, where the majority of shops are closed as England continues a four week national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — The U.K’s treasury chief batted away speculation Sunday that he is about to turn off the spending that has buoyed the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying now is not the time to worry about the government’s record peacetime borrowing.

Rishi Sunak used appearances on Britain’s Sunday morning political talk shows to announce plans to give the National Health Service an extra 3 billion pounds ($4 billion) and pledge that support for businesses and workers hurt by the pandemic will continue through the spring.

The comments came amid reports that Sunak may announce a pay freeze for government workers when he delivers his annual spending review to Parliament on Wednesday. That triggered questions about whether he was preparing to clamp down on spending and raise taxes amid forecasts that government borrowing will reach 372 billion pounds this fiscal year.

Sunak said the government is still focused on responding to the pandemic, with 750,000 people having lost their jobs already and more likely to follow. He declined to comment on pay freeze reports.

“It’s very sad to see,” he told the BBC. “It’s real, it’s not just numbers of a chart, it’s people’s lives, it’s their livelihoods, their security that’s being impacted. And it’s something that we’re going to grapple with for a while to come, sadly.”

The question of government spending is a very sensitive one in the U.K., which struggled under years of austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. The matter is even more fraught now, as public sector workers, including nurses, firefighters and care workers, bore the brunt of tackling COVID-19.

Frances O’Grady, leader of the Trades Union Congress, urged ministers to think twice about a pay freeze.

“If you want to motivate a workforce when we are still facing a second wave of a pandemic — and we’re going to have a tough winter, we all know that — the last thing you do is threaten to cut their pay,” she said.

The overall impact of the virus on government spending will become more clear this week when the Office for Budget Responsibility releases its latest forecast for public finances and the economy.

The U.K. is facing one of the deepest recessions in its history, with economic production at least 10% smaller than last year, even after a rebound during the summer.

Government debt reached 101% of gross domestic product in October, the highest level since 1961.

“We thought what we saw back in the financial crisis was huge, but this is much, much bigger,’’ Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told the BBC.

The government will eventually have to rein in spending and raise taxes, but with interest rates at record lows and the pandemic still raging there is no need to do so immediately, Johnson said.

“My view is that we’re not going to need to do anything very much at all this year and probably next,” he told the BBC. “We’re probably looking into the middle years of the 2020s.”

Sunak plainly believes that the moment of reckoning is not yet here. But it is coming.

“One thing we know and have learned, this virus is adapting and evolving, our ability to combat is it adapting and evolving,” he told Sky News. “So there is an enormous amount of uncertainty at the moment and it wouldn’t be right to make long-term decisions right now.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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