Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.
Planning for disaster
Years ago I was rummaging around in the basement of the Treasury and came across an old copy of the “War Book”: a big red tome setting out what to do in the event of nuclear attack.
Time had made some details rather quaint: if the Soviets were about to drop a trillion megatonnes of instant sunshine on Britain, I’m not sure “nationalise Girobank” would be the first thing on my to-do list.
But it was a huge, thorough plan. Each department had something similar.
Since the end of the cold war, thinking about civil contingencies has been lower priority. But our more connected world creates potential for new, faster crises.
Not just pandemics, but the financial contagion we saw in 2008. Our reliance on the internet, cloud, electric grid and GPS is increasing. More specialisation, plus more global chains of just-in-time production increase efficiency, but also fragility. You don’t have to be Martin Rees to think there’s new risks that we must plan against.
It’s striking that the countries that did best in the Covid pandemic are those, like Taiwan and South Korea, which live under threat of annihilation by their neighbours. They’re dense, urban countries, but per head they had just three per cent and 0.1 per cent of the rate of cases seen in the EU.
Though we’re fastest in Europe, the world’s fastest vaccine rollout is in Israel – a country also under constant threat.
Other top performers include New Zealand and Australia. They aren’t under such military threat, but have long been used to tough bio-borders. Australia went from one idiot releasing a couple of rabbits for fun, to having 600 million bunnies and having to build the world’s longest fence. That was a pretty good early lesson about the exponential growth of a new organism introduced where there’s no predatorial ‘immune system’ to keep it in check.
New Zealand and Oz also imposed tough lockdowns in response to relatively few cases. At the time sceptics here said it was “absurd” and “out of proportion”. But our cousins were right, so they’ve been able to get back to normal faster. They basically followed the advice of Ripley in the movie Aliens: ‘nuke it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure’.
Right across South East Asia and Australiasia, successful states have made their borders very tough. As vaccinations power ahead in the UK, we’re quite right to further toughen our borders against potential new vaccine-resistant variants. The cost of a vaccine dodging variant coming here would just be too high.
But there’s something more to learn from states that live under threat, about the need for state capacity. Another top Covid performer is Singapore, where civil servants are very highly paid – but small in number, and low performers are managed out fast. One reason the state shouldn’t be too big is exactly so that it can be strong and focussed.
China as number one
As people have pointed out, coronavirus has accelerated lots of trends: we’ve woken up in 2030. Paying for things is contactless. Videocalling friends is normal. More stuff is bought online. And China is closer to being number one.
Though some democracies managed the same feat, China’s brutal suppression of Covid-19 has been successful, meaning faster reopening, meaning the point where it becomes unambiguously the world’s largest economy is now only a few years away.
The last twelve months have seen Beijing start to throw its weight around more.
The west needs to get its act together urgently. There’s an internal economic challenge, to match their all-conquering innovation-industrial system. And a diplomatic challenge too, to reunite the democracies. At a China Research Group event last week with people close to the new Biden administration, it was clear that there’s an important role for the UK in making that happen.
Making a living
First it was the global scramble for masks and PPE. Then ventillators. Then diagnostics and testing kit. Now the global surge of demand for vaccine production and glass vials.
Again and again, the pandemic demonstrated why we need advanced manufacturing capacity: in a crisis, nations are utterly dependent without it.
To be sure, there were always other good reasons to back manufacturing. Along with professional services, it’s the other part of the UK economy that really drives productivity growth: since 1997, manufacturing provided 40–50 per cent of productivity growth in places like Wales, the West Midlands and the North West.
But the pandemic underlines another reason to want such capacities here. When the international going gets tough, countries must be able to provide for themselves (topped up with firm agreements with allies for complex products).
This lesson is not lost on President Xi, who in a speech in April set out his “dual circulation” plan:
“we must build on our advantages, solidify and increase the leading international positions of strong industries, and forge some “assassin’s mace” technologies. We must sustain and enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”
In case you were in any doubt, Xi also talked about “forming powerful countermeasures and deterrent capabilities based on artificially cutting off supply to foreigners”.
Since Margaret Thatcher left office, Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country.
Perhaps it’s another area where we should learn from Asia: South Korea has nine times more robots per manufacturing worker than the UK, yet since the Lawson era the UK has slashed capital allowances which support such investment.
As a recent report for the Levelling Up Taskforce found, such allowances also tend to help poorer areas more.
The Government was panned at the time for not joining the EU’s joint procurement of the vaccine. But the team who secured more vaccine orders for the UK than any other large country showed the benefits of being small and agile.
We need to apply the same agility and flexibility to our exit from the pandemic.
I totally understand why people want to set hard dates to reopen. We are all desperate to get back to normality.
But there are so many unknowns: how fast cases will fall; what effect school reopening will have; how much protection people get from their first and second vaccinations; how much that stops the spread, not just symptoms; whether new vaccine-resisting strains come here; and how fast we can go on vaccinations…
Given all this we need to stay nimble in the final phase of this. On Friday we delivered 425,000 vaccination doses in England alone. Huge numbers of people are being protected each day.
We will soon jab our way to victory, and end this pandemic.
Afterwards, there’s all kinds of lessons we must learn from it.