According to Frances O’Grady, a possible freeze on public sector pay in the spending review later this week is “morally obscene”. 

You would expect Ms O’Grady to argue, always and everywhere, for more pay (except for the bosses of FTSE 100 companies, whose “telephone number” salaries she complained about a couple of years ago, before giving herself a pay rise). It is, fundamentally, what she’s paid – around £170,000 last year – to do, as general secretary of the TUC. 

I have no complaints about Ms O’Grady, whose father was a British Leyland shop steward and who herself has a diploma in trade union studies, arguing for more pay, or even for making thinly veiled threats of public sector strikes. But I can do without the moral judgment.

There’s nothing immoral about an employer trying to pay less, any more than there is in an employee considering industrial action to try to get paid more. In this case, the employer – and the one footing the bill – is us.

If a trade union is for anything, though, it is advancing the cause of its members and attempting to improve their pay and conditions. I always had a sneaking admiration for the late Bob Crow, the Communist head of the RMT, who managed to secure drivers on the London Underground a salary more than twice the national average, despite the fact that their job – as the driverless Docklands Light Railway proved – was literally surplus to requirements. 

All the same, in the current climate it would not be particularly surprising if the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were considering a public sector pay freeze. The cost to the taxpayer of their wages is around £200 billion every year, so it isn’t even a cut, just a curb on additional public money. 

Mr Sunak has already spent even more than that extravagant figure this year on dealing with the Covid emergency, and done so while closing down large sections of (mostly, the private sector of) the economy – such as hospitality, entertainment and tourism – and imposing enormous new costs on the few bits trying to stay open. 

The majority opinion seems to be that, if lockdowns are imposed, he doesn’t really have much of a choice about flinging money around like Viv Nicholson after Keith’s numbers came up. But nor is there any argument about the fact that sooner or later, the bill for this will be due, and it will be eye-watering.  

It’s great news that there are now several promising vaccines, and that the UK has secured the largest number per capita of any country in the world. But even after we’ve paid for the vaccine itself, the business of administering 65 million jags is going to be expensive. 

Then there’s £10 billion more on local government, £5n more on transport, the £16nn extra on defence announced just the other day. These start adding up: so far this year, £70bn extra has already been spent on the public sector, about half of it on the NHS. It has already included a pay rise for nearly a million public sector workers, who got an above-inflation settlement in July. 

That’s before Mr Sunak has even announced his spending plan (though, as seems to be the new practice, we will get told again tomorrow, in the hope we’ll imagine that spending that’s already been announced is new money). 

One easy saving is that MPs should immediately rescind the pay rise they were themselves given (it’s now awarded by an independent body rather than by MPs themselves, but there’s nothing to stop them from voting not to take it). Actually, I usually think that MPs should get paid more than they do, but that there should be far fewer of them. But now really isn’t the moment. Pay restraint can start there. 

The private sector has been hammered harder than the public sector, as usually happens in recessions. There is bound to be a degree of sympathy for those whose work has been especially stressful and valuable, particularly NHS workers (which is why it is being suggested that they may be exempted from any freeze applied to other public sector workers), but there are plenty of vital key workers – those in supermarkets, delivery and many of those who work in care – in the private sector, too. 

Hardship, in any case, isn’t a competition: the self-employed who’ve lost their businesses, restaurant workers, musicians, actors, plumbers and retailers may attract less immediate sympathy than A&E nurses, but their contribution is as important. It’s their taxes that pay for A&E, or rather that won’t, if they are all out of a job. 

The need to prevent everything going to the wall justifies spending that, in other circumstances, even the most fiscally irresponsible politicians would regard as certifiably insane. But in the long run, the bill can only be settled by some combination of the following: economic growth, restraint in spending, or higher taxes. 

Even before coronavirus, the Government had been ready to spend substantially on projects that – rightly or wrongly – they believed would provide stimulus. 

The primary recipients of this largesse were initially going to be the Tories’ new friends in the North (of England). Now it needs to be almost everyone.  

If, as he already is, Mr Sunak is paying people not to work, it can hardly be any worse to fling money at areas, particularly in transport and other infrastructure, where it may do some good. Turning off the tap prematurely risks deeper and longer recession. 

Since the overall tax take is, at nearly 35 per cent, currently at its highest level since the 1940s (bar the odd short blip), there’s not much room there for finding the extra to settle our debts. In the immediate aftermath of a pandemic and the early days of the post-Brexit settlement, the dangers in raising taxes are huge, in any case.  

Public sector pay restraint will help a bit. The economy’s only long-term realistic option, however, is growth – something at which the UK has been pretty dismal for more than a decade. But at least we know the recipe: lower taxes, less regulation, more enterprise, freer trade.