The UK government’s response to the coronavirus and the dramatic rise in public borrowing during the crisis should include a wealth tax on the richest in society, a former head of the civil service has said.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, who served as cabinet secretary under David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, said the Conservative government could prove it was serious about fighting inequality and levelling-up Britain by increasing taxes on wealth.

Describing the response to the coronavirus crisis as a “clear burning platform” for such a move, he said: “Covid has created a situation where we’re moving to a world where debt and deficit levels will be at levels we haven’t seen for decades.”

Speaking at an online eventorganised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, O’Donnell said: “We’re going to have a debate where people will want increased spending on the NHS and things like that. When the coalition government was thinking about looking at deficits, they went mostly for spending reductions, not tax increases. People now mostly say [they] prefer tax increases to spending reductions.”

Demands for a wealth tax are mounting to pay for the rapid growth in government spending that is being used to cushion the blow from the coronavirus pandemic. Although the cost to borrowing has fallen to the lowest levels since at least the 1950s, some analysts have argued for tax hikes to fund the rise in state spending.

Britain’s public debt is above the size of the economy for the first time since 1963. Annual borrowing this year is expected to balloon to about £300bn, outstripping the deficit incurred after the 2008 financial crisis.

John McDonnell, a former shadow chancellor, and Richard Murphy, a UK tax expert, have previously made the case for increasing taxes on wealth as part of the response to Covid-19.

According to polling by YouGov, 61% of the public support a wealth tax for individuals with assets worth more than £750,000, excluding pensions and the value of their main home.

Total wealth in Britain has soared in recent years to £14.6tn, mainly because of gains in private pension and net property wealth, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But wealth is unevenly spread. Three-quarters of UK wealth is held by people in the wealthiest 30%, comparedwith just 2% for those in the bottom 30%.

O’Donnell said Covid-19 was having an unequal impact, with younger people, women and those on low incomes being hit harder. “That is going to create a feeling that it’s not fair. And you’ve got a Conservative party and a prime minister talking about the red/blue wall, how to get to the forgotten man, talking about FDR,” O’Donnell said referring to Franklin D Roosevelt.

“Let’s hold them to their words and say here’s some practical things you could do to achieve your vision of a one-nation Conservatism.”

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