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RUTH SUNDERLAND: We must bridge Coronavirus divide

One of my big hopes is that the pandemic is the catalyst for a better, more productive and fairer economy. 

It’s a hope, not a prediction. I can remember expressing similar sentiments during the financial crisis, when the feeling was also that the disaster would lead to a rethink and a more moral capitalism. 

But many fault-lines and inequalities are still with us, which is why Boris Johnson’s New Deal to rebuild the economy and level up is absolutely necessary. We must do better this time, or the next crisis will be catastrophic. The risk is that the effects of the virus will amplify existing financial divides. 

Making plans: Boris Johnson's New Deal to rebuild the economy and level up is absolutely necessary

Making plans: Boris Johnson's New Deal to rebuild the economy and level up is absolutely necessary

Making plans: Boris Johnson’s New Deal to rebuild the economy and level up is absolutely necessary

A chief executive of one of the big banks last week told me the biggest concern is the way in which activity in customer accounts points to a growing chasm. 

On one side are the relatively well-off who have remained in their jobs. They are collectively accumulating billions of pounds in additional savings. Poorer customers, meanwhile, are falling deeper into debt. If the middle class have been turned into accidental savers, Johnson and Rishi Sunak have become accidental socialists. 

In the sense, that is, they are providing unprecedented levels of state support – or, as the PM said last week, ‘a prodigious amount of government intervention.’ 

Rather than the real socialists who mercifully failed at the last election, Johnson and Sunak should be able to kick-start a levelled-up economy without descending into Marxist insanity and levelling us all down to ruin. The pandemic should prompt some soul-searching about the less well-off segment of society. Traditionally this was the bailiwick of the Labour party but concerns about poverty are not confined to bleeding-heart Lefties. 

This is defined as being more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, which it places at 54 per cent of median family resources. One can dispute the technicalities, but the point is there are a shocking 4.5million individuals who fall into this category and are living very financially straitened lives.

Already the least resilient people in the country, they are also the group being worst affected by the virus. 

Those at the bottom are often overlooked, or their plight is used by middle-class Left-wingers to make political points. But Boris Johnson swept to power on a Brexit vote fuelled by voters who felt left behind and disregarded. 

Cynics may see an irony in an old Etonian talking about the need for equality of opportunity, but the PM is right. As well as the mighty investment in infrastructure he has promised, the response needs to include a huge education and skills drive to give everyone their chance. 

Sunak is expected to unveil a major plan to push apprenticeships, which would be an excellent start. But as John Fallon, the boss of FTSE 100 education provider Pearson said in these pages last week, universities need a major reinvention. 

Rather than being a coming-of-age experience for relatively privileged youngsters, they should be offering flexible and remote learning to students of all ages. 

Large employers should also be incentivised to improve their staff training. 

The quid pro quo is that people should be expected to take more responsibility for their own skills and learning. Instead of heading for the beach, mightn’t some of those sunseekers on furlough have been better advised to take one of the many free online courses available? 

As Johnson also said in his speech, the virus gives us the chance to be radical in pursuit of a more productive, less divisive economy. This time we must take it.

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