Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. John F Kennedy’s call to public service, in what he called the “long twilight struggle” against tyranny, poverty and disease, is more than half a century old. But it has felt strangely apt again during the struggle against Covid-19, which has had millions of people wondering what they could usefully do to help while medical staff risked their lives to treat sick people.
Teachers racked up untold hours of unpaid overtime. AstraZeneca developed a vaccine to be made available at cost. Owners of small shops and restaurants obediently shuttered them, despite knowing there was a chance that businesses built up over a lifetime wouldn’t survive lockdown. Those who lacked the professional skills to help found other ways of pitching in: shopping for neighbours, sewing scrubs at kitchen tables, volunteering for vaccine trials or donating to food banks. And millions sacrificed their personal freedom if not exactly gladly, then at least in the knowledge they were doing their bit for the greater good.
Which brings us to a text exchange between the billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson and the prime minister at the height of the pandemic last spring, in which Dyson explained that before joining a national effort to produce lifesaving ventilators he just needed to check that any staff flying to Britain to get involved in it wouldn’t become liable for tax here. The texts don’t go into detail, but references to day counts suggest Dyson’s concern was for staff who, whether born British or not, aren’t domiciled for tax in Britain and thus cannot spend more than 90 days a year in the country without having to pay British taxes from which they would otherwise be exempt. Ask not merely what you can do for your country, but what it can do about the resulting tax liability.
Some may be wondering how a great British company, led by a great British patriot (as he described himself when campaigning passionately for Brexit), could have so many key people unable to spend much time in Britain. That would be because, after Brexit, Dyson moved his headquarters to Singapore, saying he wanted to focus on the Asian markets, where much of its manufacturing was now happening. Patriotism moves in mysterious ways, including sometimes clean out of the country, although interestingly it emerged this week that Dyson had just moved his parent company’s address back to the UK. Anyway, the prime minister messaged back, “I will fix it tomo!”, and two weeks later the Treasury announced a temporary waiver for anyone entering Britain specifically to work on the ventilator project. Strictly speaking, we don’t know if that was down to Dyson. Maybe every tycoon Johnson knows was asking similar questions.
As Dyson has rightly said, this measure didn’t directly benefit his company – as distinct from benefiting a handful of its staff – and to his credit the company ultimately ploughed £20m into learning how to produce the ventilators Britain needed, or thought it did. It’s not his fault that, as doctors learned more about treating Covid, Dyson ventilators turned out to be almost as superfluous as the American-style televised briefing room Johnson spent £2.6m kitting out before deciding not to hold any actual televised briefings.
It’s not unreasonable either to argue that people shouldn’t lose out personally for doing their bit in a crisis. But that argument would wash better if the government hadn’t spent so long failing to fund a sick pay system generous enough that low earners could afford to do their bit and self-isolate after catching Covid. The trouble is that some people’s bits seem to be regarded as more important than others, even if stubbornly high Covid rates in poor neighbourhoods suggest the self-isolating bit is really very important indeed. What sticks in the craw, just as it did when Dominic Cummings escaped to Barnard Castle, is the suspicion that sacrifice for the greater good is – as the American heiress Leona Helmsley famously said of taxes – mainly for little people, the kind who don’t have ministers on speed dial.
And that’s the trouble with so-called government by WhatsApp; it’s not just that it circumvents Whitehall formalities, but that it smacks of favouritism. It rankles horribly with people running small British manufacturing companies who were pretty sure they could produce ventilators in a national emergency too, but struggled to reach anyone in officialdom capable of explaining how to get involved. It rankles with people who were worried about working in care homes without proper PPE as the virus ripped through them last spring, or people asked to teach 30 potentially infectious kids in a classroom whose windows don’t open properly, but whose union was publicly derided by ministers for seeking reassurances from them.
While the tax waiver itself won’t have cost the exchequer that much, it wouldn’t have cost that much in the grand scheme of things to support more of the freelancers excluded from grants for the self-employed either, or to give public-sector workers the bonuses some countries have offered in return for risking everything during the pandemic. To prioritise one and not the other says something revealing about who gets heard, and who doesn’t; whose worries are deemed critical enough to be resolved “tomo”, and who will have to wait. And therein lies a problem infinitely harder to fix.