Boris Johnson on Friday made it clear there was “no question” of freezing public sector workers’ pay, and said he would “double down” on funding new transport projects in the north of England.
The Prime Minister reportedly told around 125 MPs on a conference call that there would be no return to austerity to cover the £300 billion cost of the coronavirus crisis.
In the call with the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson disclosed that he had been in talks with the Archbishop of Canterbury about reopening churches as soon as possible, and also hinted at longer-term reform of how Public Health England (PHE) is run.
He also backed his Downing Street communications operation – which has been under fire over the messaging about easing the UK lockdown – and said he would do more to tackle obesity after the virus crisis had passed.
During the 45-minute video conference call, Mr Johnson said the Government was looking at spending heavily on infrastructure as Britain exits the restrictions.
But, according to several MPs on the call, he made it clear that “there was no question of moving to austerity and he would double down on capital projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail” to get the economy going.
The crisis could be a “springboard for our ambitions” he reportedly said, with the Government already committed to increasing spending on health and policing. His approach, he reportedly said, was “unlike any other Conservative government we have had… we are going to make sure we level up right across the country and keep faith with the people who voted for us”.
Asked directly whether there would be a pay freeze for NHS workers, Mr Johnson reportedly replied: “Absolutely not. Anyone who suggests that can sit on it.”
The Prime Minister said he would “look at” the idea of partial furloughs for employees at small firms, which could allow the Government and businesses to jointly pay staff salaries as the UK comes out of lockdown.
Asked whether he wanted to tax his way out of the crisis, he reportedly replied that Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, was examining “innovative” solutions to help entrepreneurs emerge from the lockdown measures.
One Tory MP said the Prime Minister gave the impression that “they are looking at liberalising the tax regime rather than tightening it” and the Government would “look after” those on the lowest incomes.
Speaking about the Government’s coronavirus strategy and how to keep the infection rate down, Mr Johnson said: “We mustn’t let the mugger get back off the floor, and we’re going to play Whack-a-Mole across the country wherever coronavirus flares up.”
Looking ahead, he suggested he would examine reforming how health quango PHE is run once lessons from the Government’s handling of the crisis start to be learned.
One MP said Mr Johnson told them: “We’re going to have to look at thorough reform of these bodies”.
The Prime Minister was asked whether he needed to sharpen up his communications operation, with an MP questioning Number 10’s “clarity of messaging” after the “Stay Home” slogan was dropped in England and replaced with “Stay Alert”.
The PM reportedly replied: “Absolutely not. We have done polling – 80 per cent of the respondents said the message was absolutely clear, it is one of common sense. They knew what the Government was asking for.”
He then added, to laughter: “What people are underestimating is the marmoreal, Mount Rushmore common sense of the British people.”
He also disclosed that he had personally spoken to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about an early reopening of churches so people could pray in them. After one MP said it was “crazy that a person can’t go and sit in a church alone but can go and sit in a park alone”, Mr Johnson said the matter was one of his “priorities”.
The Prime Minister, meanwhile, was “scathing” about the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who on Thursday night negotiated a £1.6 billion bailout of Transport for London.
And he said that it was “really important” that MPs are back sitting in the House of Commons again soon.
Asked what his time in intensive care with Covid-19 had taught him, he said: “Love and admiration for the NHS, and what a nasty disease it is – particularly if you weight seventeen-and-a-half stone.”
He added that he realised how lucky he was, and stressed his determination to wipe it out the virus, saying in Latin: “Salus populi suprema lex esto” – which translates as “the health of the people should be the supreme law”.
Mr Johnson was asked by one male MP when he would be able to embrace his girlfriend again, and reportedly replied: “I’m working out a good hugging policy.”