Ryan Bourne: A government that wants to Build Back Better must address supply-side constraints on the economy

26 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Well, so long, “Plan B.” In jettisoning some of the most intrusive remaining Covid-19 restrictions, England (with the home nations to follow) could soon rival parts of the U.S. in being the most “normalised” policy environments in the developed world. Yes, mandatory self-isolation for those testing positive will remain, for now. But as with the vaccine rollout, Britain appears now to be leading the world into the new approach of “learning to live with the virus.”

This will bring with it an economic fillip, albeit disrupted in near-term statistics by Omicron. We have certainly been in need of one. Though headline GDP figures across countries can be misleading about the impact of the pandemic given measurement differences, an analysis by The Economist combining five indicators – GDP, household income per person, share prices, investment, and public debt – found that through September last year Britain had been the second most adversely affected major economy from the pandemic, behind only Spain.

In its ranking of 23 OECD countries, Britain was deemed third worst for the fall in household income (behind Austria and Spain), third worst for the decline in share prices (behind Chile and Spain), worst for the fall in investment, and second worst (behind Spain) for the public debt surge. With Covid-19 deaths per capita here relatively high – above all other major European or G7 economies except for the U.S., Belgium and Italy – we suffered a pandemic double-whammy of both poor health outcomes and a big economic hit.

Does analysing the change in these variables mislead about how the UK shapes up internationally after Covid? Perhaps. It’s not as if the public health crisis was the only thing happening during this time. And it’s important to remember that looking at changes to economic variables in the pandemic can hide that Britain entered it with significant structural strengths too.

In mid-2019, The FT’s Chris Giles was able to write that incoming Chancellor Sajid Javid enjoyed unemployment at its lowest rate since 1974, with the share of 16- to 64-year-olds in work at close to record levels, inflation bang on target, average earnings growing at their highest rate for 11 years, and public borrowing modest. The biggest ongoing economic weakness then was clearly productivity – with GDP per hour worked around 15 per cent lower than seen in France or the U.S., after a decade of weak economic growth.

So the UK entered the crisis with many macroeconomic variables healthy. Even the shock of the pandemic has therefore left the country’s headline statistics looking largely unremarkable in comparison with other economies.

UK unemployment is still low by international standards, for example. At 4.1 per cent for September through December 2021, the UK’s rate was similar to the U.S., and bettered only by Japan (2.8 per cent) and Germany (3.2 per cent) within the G7. The employment rate for 16-64 year olds of 75.5 per cent, although still 1.1 percentage points below its pre-crisis peak, is similarly only exceeded by the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the Netherlands within Europe and then Japan too in the G7.

Pandemic-induced disruption and rising energy prices (on the supply-side) and huge macroeconomic stimulus (on the demand-side) has left us worried about inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. But, again, this is not an affliction unique to Britain, belying the idea it is mainly caused by Brexit. At 5.4 per cent in the 12 months to December, consumer price index inflation was almost identical to EU-wide inflation (5.3 per cent), and lower than some countries within it, such as Germany. Compared to G7 countries, the UK was decisively average too, with only Japan and France with significantly lower rates.

On GDP, it’s true that – putting measurement differences aside – the UK had one of the biggest headline falls in output during the pandemic. GDP in Q3 2021 was still 1.5 per cent below the pre-crisis peak, with only Japan having suffered a worse performance among G7 countries. But the OECD expects faster UK growth going forwards. And as economist Julian Jessop has noted, it’s highly likely that the UK will be doing better than the eurozone in terms of GDP relative to its pre-crisis peak through 2022, although still lagging far behind the U.S.

What about the public finances? Well, up to September 2021, the IMF had calculated that the UK had the third biggest total Covid-19 fiscal support package, amounting to a massive 19.3 per cent of GDP, and so behind only New Zealand and the United States. It’s therefore no surprise that public net debt has surged to new highs in peacetime. And yet, within the G7, the only country with a gross debt-to-GDP level lower than the UK is Germany and the UK is slap bang in the middle of the seven for its projected primary budget deficit this year.

The after-shocks associated with Covid-19 might be felt for years to come, through disruption to demand patterns, experiments with more home working, a spatial reallocation of activity and lingering effects on attitudes to risk. But the UK’s broad macroeconomic situation is not dissimilar to that of many other comparable countries. And that should make us ponder a few lessons from elsewhere as we tackle the immediate challenges we face.

In particular, the country that has stood out in suffering a worse inflation problem than the UK is the U.S. – where households were showered with cash such that the government effectively delivered a money drop to households. So why the guys at the Social Market Foundation appear to be urging the Chancellor to introduce a £500 “Rishi Cost of Living Allowance” as if that’s a cure to inflation here is beyond me.

Unemployment spiked very high and then plummeted in the U.S. below all G7 countries bar Germany and Japan – showing the long-term virtues of flexible labour markets. If Britain wants to regain its full, robust employment performance of 2019, it should beware new policies prioritising worker “security” over continuing a liberal hiring and firing environment as things normalise.

But, most of all, the UK’s key economic challenge – weak growth – remains and becomes even more pertinent given Covid-19-induced constraints. The pandemic has tested to destruction the idea that macroeconomic problems can be solved by throwing more and more stimulus and “demand” at things. If the Government is serious about “Building Back Better”, it needs to do the hard yards in thinking about the supply-side constraints on the economy and how to turn more demand into real growth, rather than rising prices.

Sarah Ingham: People voted to take back control of Britain’s borders – the time is well overdue for some political will

26 Nov

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

This weekend brings the First Sunday in Advent, the start of the liturgical year in the Christian calendar.

For most of us, it signals that other annual rite – the Countdown to Christmas. Shopping! Santa! Sleighbells in the snow! And endless lists: cards to be sent, presents to be given, food to be shopped for. It’s little wonder that those responsible for producing lunch or dinner on the 25th collapse into a Quality Street-Netflix coma on the sofa on Boxing Day.

‘The more the merrier’ is the plucky response to the arrival of unexpected guests. It is Christmas, after all. Time to eat, drink and be merry. There’s plenty of room around the table (‘budge up’) and the garden chairs can be brought in from the shed. Extra roast spuds mean no-one will notice any shortage of turkey, but if it looks like guests might go short, FHB.

Family Holds Back brings us to the vexed issue of immigration, dominating the headlines again with the tragedy in the Channel on Wednesday.

Although immigration is an area of public policy that affects each and every citizen, governments throughout this Elizabethan age have allowed it to become so seemingly intractable that they have frequently appeared to give up on it – or to make maladroit interventions such as the Hostile Environment strategy.

Never mind the 2005 ‘Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?’ series of election campaign posters, what on earth were the Coalition thinking in 2012 when it signed off the Hostile Environment as a good idea? In 2018, this was blamed for the Windrush Scandal, which continues to cause misery for those affected and blight the reputation of Conservatives.

Further entangling immigration with the always sensitive issue of race is not the most sensible way of resolving a problem which frequently troubles so much of the electorate. This concern peaked in 2014 and stood at around 45 per cent in the months leading up to the June 2016 Referendum, according to IPSOS-MORI’s regular Issues Index poll. After the vote for Brexit, voters were no longer so bothered. As an issue worrying them, it plummeted to 10 per cent in late 2019, the lowest level since March 2001.

This contraction of concern suggests that, while the association between race and immigration looms large in the minds of policymakers – often to toxic effect – most voters are able to decouple the two issues.

Indeed, the electorate could well suspect that invoking racism has long been a convenient if cynical means by which politicians close down any debate on the immigration, perhaps in the forlorn hope that the problem will go away. This was reflected by Gordon Brown during his mask-slipping encounter on the 2010 campaign trail with ‘that bigoted woman’.

In voting to end free movement of people in the Brexit Referendum, voters showed the country of origin of those people was pretty irrelevant. Belgium or Brazil or Benin, who cares? To paraphrase the PM, they issued their instruction: they wanted Britain to take back control of our borders.

Earlier this month, YouGov reported that immigration is once again back among on the public’s agenda, with 73 per cent saying the Government is handling the issue badly. Ministers must brave opponents’ inevitable if hackneyed accusations of ‘dog whistle politics’ (ironically, itself a dog whistle for accusations of racism) and exert some political will.

Voters are alarmed, not just by the tens of thousands of migrants landing on Britain’s beaches in the past year, but by the latest terrorist attack in Liverpool on Remembrance Sunday. The suicide bomber, a failed asylum seeker, was able to game the deportation system for seven years, not least by faking conversion to Christianity. Adding to disquiet is what appears to be an act of hybrid war against the West: the recent weaponization of migration by Belarus, who encouraged migrants illegally to enter the EU via its borders with Poland and Lithuania.

In squaring up to confront immigration, ministers could do worse than re-read the 2019 General Election manifesto. Even the most hardened Corbynista could not object to a system that aimed to be ‘firm, fair and compassionate’. The current apparent free-for-all is grossly unfair to almost everyone apart from people smugglers, but especially to the 27 migrants who drowned off the French coast on Wednesday.

With net migration to the UK standing at 313,000 in the 12 months to March 2020, policymakers should be asking themselves whose quality of life worsens thanks to the current unplanned mess. Hint: it’s not, for example, the residents of Surrey’s ritziest gated communities, who can access private schools, private hospitals, private dentists, private doctors, private carers for their old age and private security guards. Former Prime Ministers with extensive property portfolios also escape the adverse impact of too many people chasing too few resources.

To permit such massive influxes from overseas without providing commensurate public services is have spent the past two decades expecting the vast majority of the British public, whatever their ethnic background, constantly to budge up. Successive governments have not bothered to get in the extra spuds; Family Holds Back seems to have been the overarching policy response – if one indeed exists.

The Conservative party is the party of immigrants, many living the British dream who make a positive contribution to the country. Despite missteps like the Hostile Environment, we are the party of hope, not hate.

The time is long overdue for a government with a near 80-seat majority and a Cabinet which includes Sunak, Patel, Javid, Zahawi and Raab, not to mention ministers Sharma, Badenoch, Cleverly and Kwarteng to take control of immigration

The protests in Europe show why the Government pressed ahead with its ‘big bang’ July reopening

23 Nov

In the last few days, shocking scenes from Europe have been splashed across the newspapers. Huge protests have erupted in the continent after governments ramped up their Coronavirus measures to deal with growing rates of the virus.

In Austria, which has become the first country in Europe to make vaccinations compulsory and has returned to a full national lockdown, tens of thousands protested, with signs reading “no to vaccination” and “enough is enough”.

Elsewhere in Belgium, 35,000 protested against measures such as vaccine passes for restaurants and bars. Demonstrators threw fireworks at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Similar incidents have taken place in other destinations, such as the Netherlands, where riot police used horses, dogs and batons to get rid of the crowds, as well as in Croatia and Italy. All in all, it has been an incredibly chaotic week – which should make leaders think hard about their future pandemic strategies.

In the UK, there have been some very deep-seated notions about how to best manage the virus – now tested by events in Europe. One has been the assumption that the more restrictions, the better. The media and critics of the Government have often called for lockdown(s), “Plan B”, and even referred to England’s unlocking in July as the “big bang” reopening, while idolising Germany and others with stricter policies. 

But our European counterparts show there are two major dangers to indefinite restrictions. One relates to people’s immunity. Part of the reason the UK is in a better position, according to experts, is because it timed its “exit wave” – a rebound in infection when people start circulating again – with summer, when it’s easier to deal with.

While this meant the UK had high infection rates during this period, leading to accusations of it being “plague island”, it now has high levels of immunity (also thanks to the vaccine). Many European countries, on the other hand, now have spiralling infection rates, as their exit wave has come in the worst possible moment (cold weather).

The second issue with the “indefinite restriction” argument is that people’s tolerance for strict measures has a limit, as is obvious across Europe, as well as Australia, which has had one of the longest lockdowns – and resultant, widespread protests.

It’s interesting to note that the UK government was derided at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis for holding off on lockdown, due to fears about how long people could cope with such conditions. We can now see why behavioural scientists were worried; there have been violence and arrests in countries that hang onto their Covid measures, and do not give citizens enough reassurances about when these will end. 

In fact, governments have hinted to their citizens that they can expect more restrictions. Germany, for instance, has imposed new measures on the unvaccinated and vaccine passports have been eagerly embraced in many countries.

In general, there has been a groupthink – not just in Europe, but elsewhere – as to how to manage the virus. Paperwork and strict restrictions are seen as the default, sensible approach.

But hardly any of these restrictions have been brought about through votes, so it is no wonder we are seeing large-scale backlash. As I wrote recently for ConservativeHome, Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory should be a big wake up call as to how illiberal and extreme some policies are getting.

In the UK, particularly thanks to the booster programme, is moving forward and leaders are confident we will not experience the current scenes in the rest of Europe. Nadhim Zahawi, who was behind the vaccine rollout, said he hoped we would probably “be the first major economy in the world to demonstrate how you transition this virus from pandemic to endemic using vaccines”. 

For all the criticisms levelled at the Government, we can now see that there is more logic to its decisions than its critics thought; that, along with the vaccine rollout, we have got into a good position in regards to pandemic management. Far from considering measures, such as vaccine passports, because others have done so, we should use our momentum to show what normality can look like.

Robert Halfon: How my new Bill can protect millions of pupils and students from the disaster of future school shutdowns

3 Nov

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Between the start of the pandemic and July 2021, British children were out of the classrooms for almost half of the available school days, wielding a hammer blow to their education and wellbeing.

Educators and school staff made a herculean effort throughout the pandemic to react to evolving circumstances, but as we all know, the classroom is the best place for our children to learn and develop to reach their full potential.

This is why today, I am introducing a new 10 Minute Rule Bill to protect millions of pupils and students from the disaster of future school shutdowns.

The Bill has the backing of Children’s Commissioners past and present, as well as two former Children’s Ministers – Edward Timpson MP and Tim Loughton MP. Dame Rachel de Souza commented, “we must do everything we can to keep children in school and this Bill provides the opportunity to do just that.” Anne Longfield noted, “Never again must schools have to compete with pubs, theme parks and Primark to open…We should be in no doubt that keeping children in educational settings is a priority so I support this Bill.”

I also appreciate the strong support of UsforThem parents group for this Bill alongside all their campaigning to keep schools fully open for all our children over the pandemic.

My Bill seeks to define schools and education settings as “essential infrastructure” alongside other premises such as power stations, hospitals and food retailers which are fundamental to the smooth running of the country, and to our daily lives.

The Bill will also introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency.

The triple lock would require the Government to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

We rightly follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that we must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

But let me be clear. I am not a lockdown sceptic – I am a school-down sceptic.

School closures have contributed to a widening attainment gap, a worsening mental health crisis, not to mention numerous safeguarding hazards and diminished life chances.

Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs. But school closures have turned the attainment gap into a chasm.

Research published by the Education Policy Institute has shown that by March 2021, the average learning loss for primary school pupils in maths and reading were 3.4 and 2.2 months respectively. For disadvantaged pupils, this was even greater, with 4.2 months lost in maths and 2.7 months lost in reading.

Moreover, it is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes. And these figures represent an optimistic outlook. If we allow ourselves to consider a more pessimistic view, lost earnings could be as much as £463 billion.

Report after report speaks to these harms, but they were not an unfortunate inevitability of an international public health emergency. Our children have missed more than double the amount of school than children in other countries.

Children in Belgium missed just four per cent of their school days. In Sweden, education settings remained physically open to under 16-year-olds throughout the pandemic. In fact, British children have missed more school than any other country in Europe except Italy.

The facts speak for themselves and testify to what we know instinctively as parents and human beings.

A tablet is no substitute for in-person schooling. A laptop cannot replace the enriching and skills-building environment that a school community provides. A screen cannot replace the social interaction and friendships that are the essential building blocks of childhood.

Schools represent the North Star for children’s prospects and life chances. They provide structure, they provide a safe space to support children’s positive mental health and they provide a vital sanctuary for vulnerable children. What could be considered more “essential” than this.

It would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals and food retailers during a time of crisis. And rightly so – they are the lifelines to our communities. It is time we treated our schools with the same reverence – both in word, and more importantly, in deed.

We must learn from our experiences over the course of the pandemic to make sure that we prioritise children’s education moving forwards. We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that Covid-19 put on hold. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

Georgia L. Gilholy: Gordon Brown is right. Legalising euthanasia would spell disaster for the vulnerable.

22 Oct

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

Today Lady Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Lords. As they stand, the plans aim to legalise physician-assisted suicide for patients with a terminal illness and who can be “reasonably” expected to die in less than six months.

Over the past few days, numerous faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth and even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown have spoken against the move, and they are right to do so.

While much of the assisted suicide lobby seems genuinely motivated by the noble cause of reducing harm, jurisdictions, where the procedure has been legalised, show that this is rarely the overall result.

There are two main types of assisted death, and those that end the lives of those experiencing “pain and suffering” are termed euthanasia. Assisted dying generally describes the ending of a patient’s life by a medical professional.

Assisted suicide, though technically a form of assisted dying, involves a medical professional handing a patient the chemical toolkit to end their own life. The narrative of mercy may dominate campaigns to legalise both these procedures, but all too often airbrush their grim reality.

Dr Joel Zivot, a physician who researched the autopsies of over 200 executed US prisoners, has emphasised how the common assisted suicide method of ingesting pills can be “horrendous” and often leads to a paralysing injection being administered “because many individuals are not able to swallow”.

In a process Zivot has described as akin to drowning or being strangled, the patient’s ability to move or breathe is gone, but they are not blocked from potential awareness. This gives the false impression of a person’s ease and consent, while the final moments of their life are characterised by excruciating pain that is in no doubt exacerbated by the psychological distress of physical and verbal paralysis.

This dystopic step has already been banned as part of capital punishment in most US states that still permit the penalty, due to its obvious cruelty. It however remains a staple of assisted dying in the “liberal” state of Oregon, whose framework the Meacher Bill proudly models itself on.

While the Meacher Bill itself does not acknowledge a role for doctors to take over and end life when complications occur — as they do in from 15 per cent to 25 per cent of cases in Oregon — how long until it is suggested that the law be expanded to facilitate this role? How many doctors will do so without fear of an autopsy revealing their criminality, given that the cause of death will be predetermined?

If the supporters insist that the procedure only be legal when consent is given, why do they laud a system in which consent can surely not be truly secured, as so many patients are entirely deprived of their senses while their mortality is set in motion?

In any case, we are wrong to assume that consent and choice are free-floating values, magically disconnected from social realities. Almost all of our choices, from the trivial to the life-altering, are influenced by external factors, including the people we surround ourselves with, and these influences are almost always exaggerated depending on the gravity of the decision we face.

A report published this year by the Oregon Health Authority demonstrated just this. In a study that examined the state’s policy of medical assisted death from its introduction in 1998 to 2020, it was found that out of all patients who underwent an assisted suicide in 2020, over half were motivated by concerns that they were a “burden on family, friends/caregivers”.

Is it hardly a leap, therefore, to suggest that stresses over social and economic support are an overwhelming factor in the majority of assisted deaths and that shoehorning in the policy as another “form of treatment” NHS doctors are obliged to offer the terminally ill at a time of increasing socio-economic crisis would open the door to certain disaster?

Another, disturbing side to this factor is the threat of pressuring vulnerable people to end their lives, and the inadequacy of busy doctors to detect social manipulation and coercion that families and partners wishing for a death they think will work to their financial or social advantage or even doctors who themselves come to see it as merciful to kill.

Indeed, as Professor John Keown, of Georgetown University, explored well over a decade ago, courts in the Netherlands already hold that just as the “relief of suffering” can justify voluntary requests for euthanasia, it can equally justify the termination of those who are in no position to give voluntary consent.

There are also plenty of patients who may simply come to see it as their duty to end their life as they become “too” old, ill or depressed, and will opt for an assisted death due to an internal sense of guilt and obligation. The Meacher Bill itself would not permit such an individual a voluntary death unless a doctor could estimate that they were in six months of death, but given that such legislation has been expanded in almost every jurisdiction where it has been permitted, this Bill if passed, would surely be no exception?

Although, unlike in the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere, the Meacher Bill outlines strict preconditions for assisted suicide that do not include “suffering”, it is clear that the thrust of the euthanasia campaign is based on the premise that this is the reason why the practice must be legalised.

Ask the average supporter why they support the procedure, and their first answer will probably revolve around helping people escape pain. Even the article in which The Sunday Times announced it would be campaigning on behalf of the Meacher Bill, led with the claim that it aims to stop “unbearable suffering”.

So either campaigners for the Meacher Bill are arguing — quite irrationally — that mental and physical anguish only qualify as “unbearable” when a patient has a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months, and whom can give “voluntary consent” — the conditions for assisted suicide the Bill sets out — or these more moderate plans are geared toward getting their foot in the door by ensuring we first accept that assisted death is legally and morally permissible before they can then argue that it ought to be expanded? Alas, whether naivety or dishonesty is to blame, they must be stopped.

Given that any measurement of suffering and pain is somewhat arbitrary and subjective, how can one comfortably claim that the anguish of grief or clinical depression, for example, is less painful than an injury or physical disease? These sensations cannot be measured in litres or decibels, and every person reacts differently to them.

It follows that the natural result of permitting state-sanctioned suicide due to ‘suffering’ is the extension of the permission for any person who judges themself to be suffering sufficiently to feel suicidal, whether it be a 90-nine year old with terminal cancer, or a 14-year-old girl starving herself due to anorexia. The question of obtaining “clear” consent also persists in both situations. Is it even possible for a person with clinical depression, or say, a depression prompted by a major disease, to make an uncompromised choice to pursue death?

This is already a reality in places many Britons are so apt to envision as progressive paradises. In October 2020, a healthy 90-year-old Canadian named Nancy Russell ended her life by euthanasia after stating she wished to die rather than endure another Coronavirus lockdown.

Canada’s Bill C-7, passed in March, further opened up euthanasia legislation to people of any age with disabilities or mental health conditions. Belgian law allows euthanasia if the patient is in a state of constant physical or psychological pain; while in the Netherlands doctors can secretly sedate patients who have dementia before euthanising them, and euthanasia for anyone over the age of 16 is legal.

Already, throughout the pandemic, we have seen elements of the health system betray the dignity and right to life of persons with disabilities or mental conditions by issuing “do not resuscitate” orders without consulting patients or their families.

These decisions were not just likely to have been unlawful, but are directly connected to several deaths, including that of a 58-year-old woman with schizophrenia and a deaf man in his sixties. If our strained system has lowered itself to this point while healthcare professionals are still legally required to preserve life, what will be the knock-on impact of further cheapening the regard for human life, and the Hippocratic oath, by legalising assisted death?

I do not doubt that most euthanasia campaigners are likely motivated by a genuine desire to reduce suffering, but I believe they are misled about what the true impact of this legal and cultural watershed would be.

There are, obviously, a small number of compelling cases that make it easy for people to support the theoretical liberty of euthanasia, however, it is right that a small fraction of individuals in exceptional cases not be permitted to legally access assisted suicide if by doing so we would put vast swathes of vulnerable people at risk of unwanted and unwarranted deaths. The hypothetical liberties of a select few cannot be permitted to trump all other considerations.

Bim Afolami: The Olympic model of spotting and developing talent should be applied to academia

26 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Olympics begins, I have a giddy sense of excitement. The coverage is the BBC at its best. I start to care about events you barely knew existed (Men’s 10m Air pistol anyone?), and cheer on each British athlete with immense fervour.

There is something magical about the Olympics. It isn’t just the hype. It is the stories behind each and every champion. There is something special about the sacrifices they have made, spending their teenage years in a mixture of holiday training camps in addition to the relentless grind before and after school, and seeing all of that effort culminate in competing at the very highest level.

We rightly applaud and celebrate them, and we also praise their highly focused coaches and families who have helped develop their extraordinary single-minded focus on achievement from a young age.

After the failure of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, during which Team GB only won one gold medal, finishing 36th in the medal table – below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it prompted a period of furious self-flagellation in the media and serious soul searching among administrators.

Due to the brilliant decision of John Major as Prime Minister to introduce the National Lottery, this provided the funds for the “World Class Performance Programme” to start diverting funds into elite sport. It allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a wide range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.

Extra funds were also invested in greatly improved facilities across a range of different fields. The talent development programmes that made sure promising athletes were funnelled into their best sport at a younger age. All of this work has led to Team GB hugely improving its performance at Olympic Games, finishing 4th overall in Beijing 2008, 3rd in London 2012, and 2nd in Rio 2016.

Why do we think about academic and intellectual achievement so differently? Why do we regard the selection of children for academic ability and potential so anathema, yet ruthless and narrow selection for sporting prowess is regarded as rightly necessary to develop the leading stars of the future?

We need to focus on developing our brightest and most talented people, in a range of different fields, from a young age – and do this irrespective of their social background. As the Prime Minister often says, talent is evenly distributed in this country, but opportunity is not. We need to rediscover meritocracy in Britain.

The truth is that in order to do so, one is confronted by a difficult problem. How to discover and develop talented children in the population at large when the ladder of opportunity has so many rungs missing? And how do you give the best possible opportunities to such children once you have discovered them?

Adrian Wooldridge, Managing Editor of the Economist, in his new book The Aristocracy of Talent argues that the way to do this is to revive two ideas that were at the heart of the meritocratic movement until the “progressive” reforms of the 1960s: IQ testing and academic selection.

We know the arguments about the 11 plus – the Left argues that dividing the country between sheep and goats at 11, on the basis of one test at a very young age, does immense harm to those who failed in the process; the Right retorting that it gave unique life chances to bright working class children who were identified early and given life changing opportunities.

The best way forward is to learn from the failures and successes of the past. We don’t need a national 11 plus in the old style. We need more of a variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools from technical schools to music schools and arts schools, but which also makes room for highly academic schools in the state sector.

We have already provided the material for this with school academies – Brampton Manor Academy, for example, is situated in Newham, East London, with one in five children eligible for free school meals. The sixth form is highly selective (on the basis of GCSE grades), and it cultivates a highly academic atmosphere, with intensive Oxbridge training as well as a host of extracurricular subjects. Last year it won 55 places at Oxbridge – their method is working.

The Government could push this revolution further by allowing academies to select at 11 – not with an 11 plus, but with IQ tests developed precisely to avoid being susceptible to intensive tutoring that is all too common in preparation for that exam. This would not just be for the typical “academic” subjects.

For example, we should turbocharge the intake for our university technical colleges (which start at 13-14 years old) by scouring the country and actively selecting children with special aptitude in technical, engineering and design skills. These are the children who will go on to build our future high tech manufacturing capacity, or develop the sort of innovative ideas that will help us achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Wooldridge argues that, in addition to this, we could create a system of fully-funded national scholarships, awarded on the basis of a combination of IQ and social need, that would allow children to study at any school in the country – opportunities to be selected for this would happen continuously throughout secondary school, lest late developers be missed.

Private schools would be forced to open up a certain number of places to these students. These national merit scholars would be given free university education in return for agreeing to spend at least 10 years working in the public sector.

This would address the public sector’s growing problem with attracting high flyers, particularly in IT and tech. It would repair the fraying link between public service and intellectual excellence. As government and governing becomes ever more complex, and we demand more from our teachers and other public servants, we should try and ensure that more of the most academically able students are incentivised and trained for life in public service.

I know that real life is not the Olympics. Yet training and developing our most able young people for the future will not just be important for identifying hidden talent, but it will benefit all of our society. It is mad that the only type of selection that is verboten in the state sector is academic, when the wealthy can just pay for it.

Let’s rejuvenate the idea of meritocracy, and truly ensure that the most talented, from every background can get to the top. We might end up with better technical skills in industry, better civil servants, better teachers, and yes – much better politicians!

Emily Carver: Politicians’ refusal to discuss NHS reform is cowardly at best and sinister at worst

10 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The recent furore over the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff has served as yet another reminder of just how toxic and claustrophobic public debate over our health service has become.

Unsurprisingly, the press framed the Government’s decision as a callous attack on nurses (despite the fact that the pay rise would apply across-the-board), the unions slammed the “pitiful” increase as “the worst kind of insult” to NHS workers and threatened strike action, while the opposition rallied to demand justice for our “Covid heroes”. All very predictable. But while the headlines may have been foreseeable, it is still troubling to see how little room there is for rational discussion when it comes to “our NHS”.

First, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that the headline figure of one per cent is misleading. The wage banding system for NHS staff – as with most of the public sector – allows for regular incremental wage rises; and overtime payments and extra allowances for staff in London and the South East are also built into the system. The problem is that the way staff are remunerated appears arbitrary and allows little room for targeted or performance-based pay rises.

In an institution, which employs 1.3 million people, this is not only an inefficient way of using taxpayers’ money, but a rather unfair and possibly demotivating method for deciding pay. Few would disagree that pay should ideally reflect contribution and performance, rather than rely on national pay bargaining. It is distinctly disingenuous to claim that every single employee in the NHS, regardless of their role, responsibility or competence, deserves the exact same increase.

For now, fundamental change in the way we decide NHS pay is likely to be placed on the backburner, along with reforms to many other areas of public policy. Far simpler for ministers to slap an NHS badge on their lapel and squabble over how many extra billions we should pump into the behemoth this year. Why risk the inevitable backlash that comes with calling for more substantial reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that the IEA’s relatively innocuous briefing paper Viral Myths, which challenged the idea that the NHS has been a “star performer” during the pandemic, triggered explosive media coverage. The fact that the paper made it clear that it was talking about the institution rather than the staff mattered very little when the opportunity arose for politicians and commentators to make incendiary remarks – see Angela Rayner’s public outburst for a particularly wearying display of point-scoring.

It is clear that much of the political class would rather pander to the narrative of the NHS as the “envy of the world” than stick their head above the parapet and dare to suggest we might have something to learn from international best practice.

But this is cowardly at best and sinister at worst when you consider that the NHS consistently ranks in the bottom third in international comparisons of health system performance, which, to our shame, translates into thousands of unnecessarily lost lives each year. Failing to implement – or even entertain the notion of – change helps no-one, aside from perhaps a handful who use it for cheap populism. Reform would not undermine hard-working staff, quite the opposite. Releasing frontline staff from the broken system they are trapped within would be a mark of respect and gratitude.

In the months to come, the case for reform will strengthen. As immediate pressure from Covid patients eases, it is doubtful the NHS will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been estimated that as many as six million “hidden” patients could join the queue for NHS treatment in the coming months, which could see waiting lists reach eight million by October this year. The reported rise in the number of people now booking private appointments suggests that the public are growing increasingly aware that the service is in poor health, and increasingly impatient at how long it takes to get the treatment they need. If this trend continues, as is surely inevitable, it is not inconceivable that resentment will start to bubble at the vast sums funnelled towards an unreformed NHS.

Although the pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in the NHS, people appear intolerant to change. Such is the potency of the two rhetorical strawmen devotees of our healthcare system are able to erect: first, that criticism of the institution is tantamount to criticism of its workers and second, that the only alternative to our universal provision is the American system. But perhaps, as the trauma of the pandemic eases, their resolve may soften. Either way, our representatives owe it to us (let’s remember the NHS budget is likely to reach a colossal £200 billion this year) to engage in sensible discussions over reform.

It is simply unacceptable that it is now the norm for patients to wait months and months for routine operations – as was the case even before the pandemic struck. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world; it should be a national scandal that our health service produces health outcomes more similar to that of the Czech Republic and Slovenia than of Switzerland or Belgium, both of which, it is important to stress, benefit from universal market-based healthcare systems.

The burden on the NHS in the months and years to come may be unlike anything we have yet experienced. The Government speaks of a global Britain, but this must include a willingness to learn from other countries, and healthcare should be no exception. Those hackneyed arguments that any failings are down to underfunding, or that the only other choice besides the NHS is the US model, are borderline insulting to a voting public who have sacrificed so much over the past year to “protect the NHS”.

Garvan Walshe: We can be sure that those who have been vaccinated won’t die of Covid. So the case for lockdowns is vanishing fast.

18 Feb

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Having detected three cases of Covid–19, Melbourne has been put into lockdown. The European Centre for Disease Control suggests it might have to be maintained until the summer. Germany is getting increasingly jumpy about new variants, despite never exceeding 300 cases per 100,000 people.

Spurred by vaccine delays – particularly acute thanks to the European Commision’s utter mess of procurment – a narrative is taking hold. It states that the vaccines are ineffective against new variants, and could be ineffective against variants yet to emerge. What is needed, the argument goes, is to prevent the circulation of the virus, and therefore the chance that these variants could ever emerge.

We know, of course that for the elderly, and for those with co-morbidities, Covid is lethal. In old and fat Western societies, these can easily be millions of people. For the rest of us, it, with a few exceptions, is not unlike other afflictions: it ranges from utterly harmless to deeply unpleasant – sometimes with long-term effects. We don’t shut society down to eliminate these in the case of other diseases.

For the last year, most of these populations have been deprived of their freedom. They have sacrificed their ability to pursue their normal life and exist as social beings in order to protect the vulnerable in society. Perhaps the introverted don’t mind do much: the other day I asked a friend, a writer of scholarly books who lives in America, how he was coping, and he replied “since I’m a hermit, I’ve nothing to complain about”.

But some of us like company, and have been hard hit. And since in our open societies people tend to gravitate to jobs that suit them, the inequality is sharpened.

Strict, long confinements like France’s and Belgium’s are the toughest to bear. In Spain, by contrast, cafes and restaurants have usually remained open, if for fewer hours. People with secure jobs in the public sector will come out of this pandemic with higher savings ,because there’s nothing to spend money on.

But if you run a small business, the difficulty in meeting people makes finding new clients extremely hard, even if you’re not in a sector hit by restrictions. It’s worst of all for workers in hospitality and travel – hugely improtant in sunny southern Europe.

The mental health effects of enforced solitude are only slightly leavened by our knowledge that everybody else is going through the same thing. Thankfully, Spanish and Italian authorities have been less draconian this time, and don’t restrict people from walking outside.

That’s not the case in Paris, where you are formally limited to staying within a kilometre of your home. It goes without saying that it helps to be richer: self-isolating in a cramped flatshare with unsympathetic housemates is much more difficult than in a spacious family home with a garden. For people trapped in abusive relationships, it’s a living hell.

It’s one thing to endure all this in order to prevent people dying, and for a relatively short period of time; quite another because something could happen that might return us to this situation. Our nerves are already wearing thin, capital running low and reserves of hope becoming exhausted.

As the most basic level, the aggregate effect of vaccination is to reduce the number of people susceptible to the virus. So what would happen if restrictions were lifted entirely once the vulnerable were vaccinated?

If 80 per cent of the vulnerable are vaccinated, instead of 10–15 per cent of the population being at serious risk, then two to three per cent are.  If their infection fatality rate is five per cent, they are all infected, and vaccination is 70 per cent effective, that would result in 0.2 per cent death rate – or around 90,000–120,000 deaths in the UK.

But in reality, their death and serious illness numbers would be considerably lower than that. For a start, they would not all be infected. Though vaccination is at least 70 per cent effective against infection, it is 100 per cent effective against serious illness and death: this is true even for the variants. We can be sure that anyone who has been vaccinated won’t die of Covid.

Indeed, evidence is now emerging that vaccination reduces transmissibility as well as severity of infection: this is good in itself, and also because it reduces the number of copies of the virus that are capable of generating mutations, and therefore the likelihood of more troublesome variants emerging.

Finally, with good surveillance of infection strains, we will have time to adapt the vaccine to variants that emerge. This is because the maths of exponential growth leads to an explosion, but only after a phase of slow expansion. That phase, which lasts several months with Covid, is enough time to refine vaccines, provided the mutations are detected early.

This changes the calculation that justified the earlier lockdowns. Last year, Imperial College’s modelling calculated that 550,000 people could die, and so justified the extreme restrictions that were imposed.

As the threat recedes, reopening should not be an all or nothing affair. Measures that don’t cost very much, such as tests before international travel, masks on public transport, working from home where possible, limitations on capacity for cinemas and theatres, bans on large events where superspreading can occur, and so on, should continue for longer.

But basic restrictions on seeing our fellow human beings, particularly outside, and on people who make their living serving food and drink while we do so need to be among the first to go.

Timing is critical, of course, because vaccinations take a few weeks before they generate strong immunity, but their effects can be tested by observing the number of more severe cases and hospitalisations. The dramatic success of Israel’s vaccination programme has been overshadowed by the ultra-Orthodox community’s refusal to take part in even basic social distancing but, even there, the make-up of hospitalisations has changed. As vaccines are distributed, the proportion of severe cases will go down, and pressure on hospitals will ease, allowing more opening up. This – not the mere fact of vaccines being administered, nor the complete elimination of Covid cases – is the essential metric.

Actual eradication of viruses is extremely difficult, and seems only to have been achieved with smallpox. Covid will stay endemic and mutate in the world population. However, that’s not as scary as it sounds. The virus only cares about replicating and finding new hosts. Mutations that help it spread harmlessly are much more useful to Covid than the ones that kill us.

As long as most of us are exposed to it while young, like the other coronaviruses that circulate and cause colds, it won’t cause a public health crisis. That, not zero-covid, is an outcome that we, and the virus can both live with.

Mattie Heaven: Iran’s government is a terrorist regime. British Ministers must face this truth – and act on it.

15 Feb

Mattie Heaven is a policy and advocacy advisor to the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights. She was Parliamentary Candidate for Coventry South in the 2019 general election.

Having lived in the UK most of my life, I’ve been faced with the challenge of explaining why human rights violations in Iran should greatly concern our government and my fellow citizens. The short answer is that the extremism of the Iranian regime is not limited to Iran itself – but is exported across the globe.

Aside from the brutal violation of human rights inside of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran has openly funded terrorist organisations across the Middle East, using proxy wars to gain further control of the region, and uses diplomatic channels to carry out terrorist operations against both Iranians living abroad and the international community, as a means of eliminating any opposing viewpoint that they may consider a threat.

For example, consider the recent case of the senior Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. According to reports released by German police and an indictment in a Belgian court, Assadi, the third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Austria, attempted to organise an atrocity on European soil.

He smuggled half-a-kilo of explosives onto the continent, with the intention of bombing a rally in France organised by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran.  Had it gone off, the victims could have included four Conservative MPs – David Amess, Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers, plus a Labour one, Roger Godsiff.

Clearly, the plan was not that of an individual carrying out an unauthorised act of terror, but a plot approved by the heads of the Iranian regime and organised through diplomatic channels.

If you want another recent example, mull the example of Mohammad Naserzadeh, a staff member of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, who was recently arrested by the Turkish authorities for his alleged involvement in the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime.

The extremist actions of the Iranian diplomats can be understood better when we ponder the ideology of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the most powerful official in the Islamic Republic, who has compared Israel to a “cancerous tumour, that must be wiped off the map”.

This is the state-sponsored radical and extremist ideology which led to the Buenos Aires bombing in July 1994 in Argentina. This terrorist attack orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran resulted in the death of 85 innocent people, and injured hundreds.

It is clear that the Iranian regime, over the last 40 years, has consistently shown an unwillingness to reform, or even attempt to improve the quality of life of its citizens, its troubling human rights record and its relationship with the western world. So maintaining the current diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran would be a devastating mistake – potentially with fatal consequences.

The regime has resisted reform, since it is fundamentally an undemocratic, and has frequently persecuted and arrested not only its critics, but also those such as the diverse religious and ethnic groups throughout Iran who choose to live a life other than the one officially prescribed its fundamentalist ideology,

Moreover, the issue of women and children’s rights in the country are of serious concern.  Women, half of Iran’s population, are under consistent oppression, with the underage marriage of girls being encouraged by the Mullahs. Not to mention the sobering fact that more child offenders are executed in Iran than in any other country in the world.

Unfortunately, during recent decades, the EU has mostly ignored the suffering of the Iranian people in the interest of economic gain, and has thus largely turned a blind eye to the inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities. This short-sighted view has not only led to the abandonment of human rights principles that the EU is based on, but also has worked against Europe’s own longer-term potential gains, by fuelling and empowering Iran’s ruling regime, and the global threat that it poses.

A Global Britain, as outlined by Dominic Raab, must means establishing our own standards here in the UK, and reinforcing sanctions to hold those who commit serious abuses of human rights to account, as part of UK’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rules-based international system,

Systems based on dictatorship will not last forever, and the people of those countries will always remember governments that stood by their side. A free Iran with a truly democratic system will no doubt provide the UK with much more profitable and long-term investment opportunities than the current regime can offer – unleashing the true potential of its citizens, and becoming a productive member of the international community.

Furthermore, since Iran is among the world’s largest sponsors of terrorism, its resources – some 84 million people, with vast resources of gold, oil and gas – are currently being employed in order to facilitate the regime’s terrorist ideology. Which in turn can lead to the mobilisation of hundreds of millions of potentially dangerous people around the world, with an extremist agenda to destroy western civilisation, or take it hostage.

Finally, a note on the freedom of press – following Iran’s recent execution of the prominent journalist, Rouhollah Zam, during December last year, and the ongoing threats against Iranian journalists outside of Iran. A free press in a democratic system is considered the ‘fourth pillar’ that can prevent collusion amongst the other pillars of State.

So if the regime in Iran is pressured to enforce human rights standards, we can be sure that any dangerous action in Iran that could jeopardize world peace and security would then be thwarted by the free flow of information within Iran itself.  There then would be reasonable hope for meaningful dialogue towards stable economic and diplomatic relations.

Were Iran’s human rights to be put at the forefront of the Government’s foreign policy, those who control the Iranian regime would soon come to realise that its inhumane actions and spread of terror across the world has severe consequences for it – thus providing the only incentive that can bring about legitimate change within the country.

Kristian Niemietz: What difference does the size of the state make to how is deals with Covid? None.

9 Feb

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

We are not having a very good pandemic so far.

With over 1,500 deaths per million people, Britain has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world. You can quibble a bit with those figures, but only at the margins. The number of excess deaths – that is, the number of deaths over and above what we would expect in a normal year – matches the number of Covid deaths far too closely for this to be a statistical fluke.   

In addition to having a higher Covid death rate, we have also had a worse economic downturn than most comparable countries. The UK economy shrank by about 10 per cent in 2020, compared to a European average of seven per cent, and about five per cent in North America and Japan.

And it is not as if we had lighter or shorter lockdowns than others. Our only redeeming feature so far has been the very fast approval, procurement and rollout of the vaccine. But there can be no denying that at least until the end of 2020, the UK has been coping extremely badly with this pandemic. The question is why.  

Britain’s left-wing commentariat was quick to ascribe all this to “austerity”. For example, Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, talks about “an incapacitated public realm, naked in the blast of this epidemic. It wasn’t just the NHS and social care […] but every service crippled by cuts: public health, police, local government, the army and Whitehall – all denuded.” 

Owen Jones, the arch-Corbynite writer, asserts: “a state hollowed out by austerity and market dogma is, in large part, to blame: it cannot be stressed enough that it is mostly because of these ideologically driven failures that Britain has been – is – one of the worst-hit countries on Earth.”

Michael Marmot, the “inequality czar”, wrote a Guardian article with the self-explanatory title “Why did England have Europe’s worst Covid figures? The answer starts with austerity.” 

I could easily find dozens of similar quotes, but you get the gist. It is a highly fashionable opinion. But as is usually the case with fashionable opinions, it is also completely baseless.

“Small-state Britain” is a myth. Despite all the waffle about “austerity”, in 2019, UK public spending still stood at about 40 per cent of GDP. This is a perfectly normal figure for an OECD economy, neither unusually high, nor unusually low.

But that is beside the point anyway. As I show in my new report Viral Myths: Why we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs), the size of the public sector is completely unrelated to how well, or how badly, different countries have been coping with the pandemic.

If the size of the state were the critical factor, Belgium, where government spending accounts for over half of GDP – one of the highest levels in the world – should have been superbly prepared for the pandemic. Alas, they were not. With a Covid death rate of over 1,800 per million, they did even worse than Britain, and their economy also shrank by over eight per cent.

In Italy, where public spending accounts for almost half of GDP, both the Covid death rate and the economic “growth” rate are about the same as Britain’s. France, which has perhaps the largest state in the world (unless you count North Korea and Cuba) fared somewhat better than Britain, but not by a huge margin.

Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, fared better than most developed countries, with public spending levels that are (moderately) lower than the UK’s. South Korea, with public spending levels of less than a third of GDP, was one of the star performers, and so were Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, where public spending stands at less than a quarter of GDP.

It was not government largesse that saved the best performers. It was specific policy packages, containing measures such as early travel restrictions, a rapid roll-out of mass testing, effective test-and-trace-and-isolate systems, and a rigorous enforcement of quarantining requirements (combined with financial support to make this economically viable).

This is, of course, Captain Hindsight speaking. Being right with the benefit of hindsight is, admittedly, not very impressive. But it is still better than being wrong despite that benefit.