Phase one of lockdown appears to be drawing to a close, with staff returning to work, Boris Johnson preparing to relax some measures and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, talking of tapering off state aid.
But the costs of the crisis are still racking up. More than half of Britain’s adult population are now paid by the state, including those on furlough or on benefits and public sector staff and pensioners.
The furlough bill alone, with one in four PAYE employees on its payroll, is £8bn a month, plus £6.5bn for the two million now claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance. By contrast, the NHS costs £11bn a month.
Add to this higher spending the significant drop in tax receipts. Think of all the stamp duty not paid on houses not purchased, VAT not paid on goods not bought, income taxes not paid on wages not earned, business taxes not paid on profits not generated.
To bridge the gap, Britain’s borrowing, seemingly under control after years of effort following the financial crisis, will now soar to levels normally associated with wartime.
True, Mr Sunak’s handouts have kept families afloat. We could have starved when crisis struck but instead have dined out on a feast the likes of which have never been seen before. Now the meal is coming to an end, people will start to look around and pat their pockets. Who will pay for all of this?
We will, of course, but the itemised bill has yet to be slapped on the table.
Some clues have been dropped, however. In announcing his support for freelancers, Mr Sunak hinted that the self-employed could be taxed differently in the future – perhaps in the form of higher National Insurance contributions.
The question has kept think tanks and trade bodies busy. The Social Market Foundation suggested removing the 2.5pc leg of the “triple lock”, so the state pension would rise each year by the higher of inflation or wage growth.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said stamp duty should be scrapped to revive the housing market, while Tax Research UK called for a wealth tax similar to how inheritance tax was raised to 80pc after the Second World War.
You, our readers, have had plenty of ideas too, shared in comments on the Telegraph website. Andrew Blowers thinks a VAT rise for luxury goods would be the fairest method. James Williams suggested removing the capital gains tax exemption for the selling of primary residences, while Chris Jones backed the idea of switching stamp duty liability from the buyer to the seller.
Connor Duncan said large infrastructure projects such as HS2 and 5G must be scrapped and all public sector pensions moved to defined contribution schemes. Rachel Moore said over-70s should be subject to a wealth tax, while Sarah Henderson called for a return to austerity, saying: “This is a post-war scenario, make no mistake about that.”
This is not a question that will be answered today. We will be debating this for years to come and paying the bill for generations. One thing’s for sure: it won’t be on the house.