HS2 was always a white elephant. To launch it now is a disgrace | Simon Jenkins | Opinion

It is beyond cynical. Almost every business in Britain is in lockdown. Shops are shut, factories padlocked, firms bankrupted, millions pushed into short- or long-term unemployment. They are told by the cabinet, “We are all in this together.”

No we are not. Somewhere contractors are popping the champagne and consultants carting their fees to the bank. These are not medical suppliers, care home operators or testing centres. They are not the broken-backed small businesses to whose half-hearted aid the Treasury still fails to come. The lucky ones are the backers of Boris Johnson’s beloved HS2.

On Wednesday notices to proceed were posted in the industry press to Costain, Balfour Beatty, McAlpine and others. They should all get back to work, subject only to “social distancing”. Work at the closed Euston site should resume next week. The “minister for HS2”, Andrew Stephenson, said he wanted to offer those working on the project “certainty at a time when they need it”. If worried about lockdown, they shouldn’t be. The poor dears should resume their works. Rome might burn, but Nero did not want his Colosseum to run late.

Countless megaprojects – in housing, distribution, retail and construction generally – would dearly love such reassurance. This is not only because, alone in Europe, the British government refuses to give details of how it intends to end lockdown, so that businesses might at least plan. There is worry also over the wider impact of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s warning of an astonishing 35% drop in the economy, certain to afflict all public spending, capital and current.

Even the most insensitive politician could tell you that a new high-speed train from Birmingham to London, not due for over a decade, is hardly a priority. Every other service and project must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Why on earth not HS2? In such circumstances, some sense of priorities should surely prevail. Hence the frantic desire of HS2, its suppliers and lobbyists to maintain momentum and put their project beyond all further doubt.

In an effort to explain his decision, Stephenson grasped at the nearest cliche and declared he “cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country”. But London to Birmingham covers the most prosperous counties in Britain. It is nothing to do with levelling anywhere, and certainly not the north. If he meant it, he should build an urgently needed railway from Yorkshire to Lancashire, or boost Manchester’s dire commuter services. Or if this is about vital infrastructure, why is Stephenson ignoring London’s Crossrail? It is surely more crucial for London’s recovery.

Stephenson’s decision is nothing to do with levelling. It has to do with the extraordinary power that lobbies continue to exert over ministers, even in time of crisis. HS2 has been feasting on billions of government pounds, now possibly at risk.

There was a time when Johnson would have favoured Crossrail as London’s mayor. When he arrived at Downing Street, he clearly sought a new love. As his eye roamed the Treasury harem it lighted on a more voluptuous project, HS2. Poor Crossrail.

Since Johnson’s February decision allowing the first stage of HS2 to proceed, it has become ever clearer that this railway is unlikely to go any further than Birmingham. It duplicates four other pathways to the north, all of which can offer any needed capacity by less exorbitant means. The chief beneficiaries from the extra capacity will be London commuters from the home counties and south Midlands. Even so, Wednesday’s announcement let slip that the project’s business case had plummeted from £2.70 for each pound spent to between £1.20 and 70p, well below any normal Treasury threshold. We can only assume chancellor Rishi Shunak has treated it like another aircraft carrier or power station, and shoved it in a drawer marked “vanity”.

The coronavirus saga is speaking volumes on how British government operates, crisis or no crisis. Politics is dominant. It is now known that ministers were warned in Exercise Cygnus in 2016 that it was seriously ill-prepared for a pandemic. It did nothing. It did virtually nothing last January when Covid-19 broke out in China and began to spread. The only conceivable reason for this inertia is that antigen tests, ventilators and intensive care beds are politically boring. They can be left to underfunded locals to handle.

Whitehall’s instinct is always to look to big solutions, with big institutions and big corporations to deliver them. Since the Covid-19 crisis began, I never until this week heard the word local at any press conference. It was all big NHS, big pharma and big science, never local health care suppliers, let alone care homes. A month of “protect the NHS” has given us grand – and reportedly half empty – Nightingale hospitals, while council-run care homes, responsible for the most vulnerable people, are frantic and under-resourced.

The reason is simple. Care homes are not central government’s responsibility, they are local and have seen disproportionate cuts under austerity. For the past month, they were not even included in the daily death toll – as if their deaths were unreal. Germany and Scandinavia, which respect local government, have been far better prepared and have benefited accordingly. It is plain that in Britain there has been a massive malfunction between the centre and locality, which any inquiry will have to address.

Trains may not be that important just now. But the HS2 decision illustrates a common syndrome. It is a glamorous state project, favoured even as local rail services languish. To Johnson and his colleagues, small means nothing. The sum on the table for this week’s go-ahead for HS2 was £35bn. I am sure Keynes would approve of injecting large sums into a recession-hit economy. But on a single white elephant, I think not.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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