UK PM Johnson's answer to COVID-19 downturn: 'Build, build, build'

William James, Reuters

Posted at Jun 30 2020 08:09 AM

UK PM Johnson's answer to COVID-19 downturn: 'Build, build, build' 1
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he visits the construction site of Ealing Fields High School in west London, Britain, June 29, 2020. Toby Melville, Pool/Reuters

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out his plan to spend the British economy out of its coronavirus-induced crisis, with a speech on Tuesday promising to fast-track 5 billion pounds of infrastructure investment.

Britain shut down swathes of its economy for nearly 3 months when COVID-19 threatened to run out of control, forcing the government to borrow tens of billions of pounds to keep companies afloat and limit job losses.

Now, as business gradually restarts, Johnson is looking to move past critical analysis of his government's handling of the pandemic by spelling out his plan to repair the economic damage and reshape the country.

"This is a government that is wholly committed not just to defeating coronavirus but to using this crisis finally to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades," Johnson will say in a speech.

He will draw comparisons between his ambition and Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" program of the 1930s, which included a raft of job-creating public works projects to help the United States recover from the Great Depression.

However, Britain's recent history shows that infrastructure spending is difficult to deliver.

A new underground train line in central London is over budget and late, as is a north-south high speed rail link, and after decades of discussing airport expansion at London Heathrow, the project remains mired in legal challenges.

The speech will announce that 5 billion pounds of investment in hospitals, schools, roads, and other projects will be accelerated to support jobs and fuel an "infrastructure revolution".

It is unclear if any new money is being committed, with finance minister Rishi Sunak to set out more details next week.

Johnson has vowed not to repeat the actions of previous Conservative-led governments who responded to the 2007-2009 financial crisis by cutting spending on public services to prioritize fiscal balance and debt reduction.

He was elected by a landslide in 2019 before the coronavirus struck, on a pledge to address imbalances across Britain and spend more on health, education and policing, testing the limits of his party's reputation for budgetary prudence.

Despite the crisis blowing an estimated 300 billion pound hole in any fiscal plans he had, Johnson is keen to show he is not backtracking.

"We will build build build," he will say according to extracts released by his office. "Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires."