Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

Charlotte Gill’s Podcasts Review 6) Christopher Hope with Mark Francois, Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush with Mark Harper

8 Dec

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: Chopper’s Politics
Host: Christopher Hope
Episode: Pricey PCR tests and ‘Remainer Publishers’

Duration: 40:09 minutes
Published: December 2

What’s it about?

There’s a lot crammed into this 40-minute episode of Chopper’s Politics, starting with the appearance of Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, who talks to Hope about all things Covid travel-related. But the part of the podcast that has attracted the most media attention is its host’s chat with Mark Francois, the ERG Chair, about his latest book Spartan Victory. Francois delves into the process of writing the book, and how it went down with “Remainer” publishers, as well as offering his latest views on Brexit.

Some teaser quotes:

Shapps:

  • (On the Omicron variant): “I don’t think it’s going right the way back to the bad old days”.
  • (On Labour’s description of HS2): ‘I have never heard £96 billion pounds of expenditure described as ‘crumbs’ before”.

Francois:

  • (On the triggering of Article 16): “I don’t think this can wait forever. If you keep threatening to do it, and you don’t do it, after a while you look weak.”
  • “I did approach – over the last year – quite a number of publishing houses… with the aid of a literary agent. In a nutshell the problem was that the orthodoxy within the publishing industry is very, very much Remain.”
Verdict

A fun interview that covers a huge amount of political territory.

Title: The New Statesman Podcast
Host: Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush
Episode: How a chief whip became a rebel, with Mark Harper MP

Duration: 27:33 minutes
Published: December 7

What’s it about?

In this discussion, Mark Harper, Head of the Covid Recovery Group, talks to The New Statesman about a number of issues, ranging from his time as chief whip under David Cameron, to his thoughts on the Labour Party and whether it’s been a useful Opposition during the Coronavirus crisis, to why he’s become a “rebel” after years of supporting the Government.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “The thing I’ve mostly rebelled on has been on Covid, and it’s partly been about the policy, but it’s also been about how you treat Parliament”.
  • On Labour’s Covid response: “They’ve basically given the Government a blank cheque; they’ve agreed things before they’ve even seen them, and someone had to do that scrutiny work”.
  • “On most things, I am very supportive of the Government. It’s just there are one or two things where I’m not, and I’m very clear about that. I haven’t suddenly become a rebel on everything.”
Verdict

A brief, but all-encompassing, insight into Harper’s politics and what’s made him a Covid rebel.

Duration: 24:31 minutes
Published: December 7

Title: UnHerd
Host: Freddie Sayers
Episode: Inside Australia’s Covid internment camp

Duration: 20:14 minutes
Published: December 2

What’s it about?

Get ready to have your jaw drop watching this video. During the course, Hayley Hodgson, a former retail assistant, talks to Freddie Sayers of UnHerd about her horrendous time stuck in one of Australia’s Covid internment camps, “Howard Springs”. The conditions Hodgson was subjected to, when she didn’t even have Covid, are dystopian to put it mildly.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “They said ‘no, you’re getting taken away. And you have no choice. You’re going to Howard Springs. You either come with us now, and we’ll put you in the back of the divvy van. Or you can have a choice to get a COVID cab’.”
  • “Obviously, I was very distressed. I was crying. I was saying ‘this isn’t fair’, it was just horrible to go through.”
  • “I said ‘once these go negative, am I allowed to leave?’ And she said ‘no, you’re here for the 14 days’.”
Verdict:

A wake-up call as to how dangerous Covid policies can become.

Sarah Ingham: Is it too much to hope MPs can turn up for a debate on our civil liberties? Apparently so.

29 Oct

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

What a difference a day makes …

The greatest tribute to Sir David Amess in the House of Commons last week was MPs’ attention. Not only were the green benches packed, but for once phones remained out of sight. Our elected representatives did the late member for Southend, and indeed the country, the rare courtesy of actually being present and fully engaged, focusing on something other than their mobiles.

Less than 24 hours later it was back to business as usual. An almost deserted chamber and empty benches. But, hey, who cares? Up for discussion – but not for a vote – was only the tiny matter of the renewal of the Coronavirus Act.

For those Conservative MPs who have been smugly congratulating themselves at swerving such tedium … Well done! You have been bested by Dawn Butler. Yes, the Dawn Butler who, back in July, was ordered to leave the Chamber for calling the Prime Minister a liar.

Arguing for the Act to be repealed and replaced, the MP for Brent Central branded it disproportionate, draconian and a danger to our rights and our liberties. ‘We are the Mother of all Parliaments and we should always have the opportunity to scrutinise Government legislation: it is what we are elected to do … The Government should not be the sole decider of legislation; we live in a democracy, not an autocracy.’

Does it matter that Butler’s intervention might owe something to the pressure group Liberty or that it prompts questions about internal Labour Party politics? The Corbyn ally’s speech was hardly on-message with leader Starmer. After all, in relation to the Prime Minister, his posture throughout the Covid crisis has roughly been that recommended to Our Man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, in connection with the Bush-era White House.

Last week Butler became the latest in a centuries-long line of MPs, battling for the power of Parliament over the Executive and the rights of the individual over the state. Not only did she remind us that 292 people have been wrongly charged under the Act, but between March 2020 and June 2021 the police processed more than 117,000 fines for breaches of it – against which there is no appeal. Last year, MPs were given no say when the maximum fine was raised from £960 to £10,000.

Trespassing onto terrain held by the Covid Recovery Group, the Corbynista would not necessarily be most people’s first pick as an heir to Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265) the pioneer of representative government, or to John Pym (1584-1643), the opponent of arbitrary power, back when liberty was a cause worth fighting a civil war for.

Butler showed up. She was only one of three Labour backbenchers to do so – as Andrew Murrison MP pointed out. But apart from the usual CRG suspects, few of his fellow Conservatives bothered. Perhaps they reasoned that, with the expiry of those sections of the Act which were most offensive to civil libertarians, there was no need to trouble themselves with fulfilling a crucial part of their job description; i.e. holding the Government to account.

Had those absent MPs actually been toiling away at the Commons’ coalface last Tuesday afternoon, they would have heard David Davis argue that proper scrutiny results in improved decision-making by Ministers. In the context of the virus, he suggested that mistakes had cost thousands of lives. In addition, this week the Public Accounts Committee reported that ‘eye-watering’ sums of money – as much as £37 billion – had been wasted on NHS Track and Trace. Other than MPs, to whom are Britain’s sub-optimal bureaucrats answerable? Certainly not to the taxpayer.

Above all, the MPs on the missing list last week sent a message that only little people and Lord Sumption are troubled by the curtailment of their liberties because of the abject failure of the NHS, a branch of the state. Just as 18th century Prussia was said to be not a country with an Army but an Army with a country, 21st century Britain has become subservient to the toxic leviathan that is its health service.

Lockdowns, past and possibly/probably future, were introduced under provisions of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, which could usher in vaccine passports. Steve Baker observed that the Secretary of State for Health ‘only has to walk into his office and sign a piece of paper and we will all be locked down again’. More tiers, bubbles and state intrusion into picnics, shopping baskets and funerals anyone?

‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ was the rallying cry attributed to Patrick Henry in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. Delegates included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In drawing up the Declaration of Independence they would be influenced John Locke, who at the time of England’s Glorious Revolution a century earlier, had argued that the proper function of government is to defend life, liberty and property.

Liberty is the golden thread running through 750 years of Parliament’s history. If they were to put down their mobile phones when they deign to be in the Commons’ chamber, MPs might spend less time worrying about being called hurty names by losers on social media and more time drawing inspiration from their predecessors, who over the centuries, have battled for our freedom.

Above all, some Conservative voters should be asking why Butler and not their MP is a standard bearer for liberty.

Andrea Leadsom: Flexible work will benefit both businesses and their employees

5 Aug

Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.

When lockdown hit, furlough became the country’s lifeline. It saved thousands of jobs, kept many companies afloat and provided the vital life support system to stop our economy from grinding to a complete halt.

But such a broad intervention has inevitably created winners and losers, from those who took furlough and then found a second job – boosting their income at the taxpayers’ expense, to those who missed furlough’s financial support because of their specific situation making them ineligible. The outrage towards those who took advantage of the situation, and the anger and frustration of those who have really suffered, will be felt for a long time to come.

Furlough has led to a unique set of problems for both businesses and employees. There are some employees who are now afraid of coming back to work – the lengthy time on furlough has left them lacking the confidence that work can be safe.

For other employees who have worked throughout lockdown, the end of restrictions cannot come soon enough. Every day I receive emails from some who are furious that there are still constraints on their freedom. Others think their employer should let them work permanently from home as they have come to appreciate the lack of a commute to work.

And then there are many, particularly young people, just starting out in the world of work, whose employers have not allowed them back to their premises. For those employees – longing for workplace camaraderie, the chat around the coffee machine, even a proper desk, the return to work cannot come soon enough.

With so many different perspectives, there is little wonder that employers are needing to look carefully at how to transition back to normality. Their prospects have also been profoundly impacted – many businesses have taken out Bounceback loans and CBILS to stay afloat and a number have been generous in topping up their employee’s furlough.

Some employers have taken advantage of furlough to close their offices and reduce their overheads, leaving their employees with nowhere to work other than their own bedroom. And frustratingly, some businesses have taken out taxpayer guaranteed loans with no intention of ever repaying them or reopening again.

This all points to a challenging world of work post lockdown at a time when our economy needs to bounce back if we are to recover from the vast amount of debt the country took on to survive. The Chancellor has a real challenge to incentivise both workers and businesses and get things moving again.

I think the answer lies in making flexible work standard – whereby there is a collaborative agreement between employer and employee on the number of hours worked and where the job is. It can reflect both the reality of post Covid preferences and the need to restore our economy. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that allowing – even encouraging – people to work flexibly will boost productivity, increase diversity in the workforce and help our wellbeing. I hope that the Government will consider the role it can play in our recovery.

When our economy suffers, we all suffer. Bouncing back in a strong, determined way will boost our recovery, and allow the Covid debt to be tackled quickly – otherwise it becomes a millstone around the necks of the next generation. Much like we all played our part in the national effort against the pandemic – caring for our neighbours, supporting our NHS and taking up the vaccine, now is the time to play our role in helping our nation’s fiscal and mental health. Helping people back to new flexible jobs is where it must start.

Will Starmer give vaccine passports a free pass?

20 Jul

“What is the question to which vaccine passports are the answer?” we asked in April.  After all, one can be double vaccinated and still carry the virus.  So providing evidence of the first as one enters a nightclub is no guarantee of not spreading the second.

The only convincing answer is: to raise vaccination rates.  But as ConHome put it then, “such a system would arguably be forced medication – which remains illegal for physical conditions, and might therefore run up against our international obligations, not least under the European Convention of Human Rights”.

Which is why we thought Ministers would be more likely to plump for requiring clubs to demand evidence that entrants are Covid-free – perhaps including lateral flow tests at the door.  Though such a scheme would have brought with it a mass of logistical and organisational problems.

So the Government has gone instead for a policy that won’t stop the spread of the virus altogether, is ethically dicey, and which will leaves it open to potential legal challenge.  Their motive is shown by the timing: Ministers aren’t requiring these passports be used immediately.

The reason?  Partly because the scheme isn’t oven-ready, as Boris Johnson would put it, but partly because although 87 per cent of the population has had a single dose of the vaccuum, only 67 per cent has had two doses.

The nightmare for the Government features young people (who make up a big slice of the unvaccinated) being turned away from nightclubs not because they’ve refused to have even a single dose of the vaccine…but because they’ve indeed had one, but haven’t had the chance to have two.

It would be grotesquely unjust for Ministers, on the one hand, to demand two doses as a condition of entry but, on the other, not ensure that both doses have actually been offered.  Hence the delay until the end of September until passports are demanded – by which time more vaccinations will have been rolled out and more young people persuaded to take them.  Or so the Government hopes.

Perhaps the special NHS app will be cheat-proof and work flawlessly (though confidence in the system as a whole won’t have been boosted by reports of people who use the present one being “pinged through walls”).

Maybe clubbers will simply sign up to be vaccinated and go with the flow.  Perhaps claims of a “racist system”, with more black people than white excluded from events, will fall on deaf ears – and those of an “anti-youth system” will do so too.

It could be that ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act don’t come into play.  And after all, the public as a whole supports restrictions.  Ministers would then be able to roll out the passports for other venues without mass opposition: in theatres, sporting venues, cinemas, pubs – any venue covered by the three Cs: “closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings”.

But even if voters go one way, MPs may go the other.  There will be a Commons vote on the plan in one form or another, and Conservative MPs are very restive about restrictions already.

On the same recent day that 24 Tory backbenchers voted against the 0.7 per cent aid reduction, amidst a mass of publicity, 31 opposed a set of Coronavirus rules.  Forty-nine voted against regulations more broadly last month.

That’s enough to defeat the Government if the opposition piles in too.  And Johnson is not in a great place with his backbenchers: add to those Conservative MPs who tend to rebel over Covid those who believe that Downing Street has no grip, and you soon reach a number larger than 49, especially since the two groups overlap.

The weekend’s chaos over whether or not the Prime Minister and Chancellor would self-isolate has been well and truly clocked by backbenchers.  Vaccine passports will add fuel to the fire, since they first seemed to be on, then were off (“we are not looking at a vaccine passport for our domestic economy, Nadhim Zahawi said in February)…and are now on again.

With the Covid Recovery Group arguing that requiring vaccine passports means creeping ID cards, Keir Starmer will be able to weigh the risk of getting on the wrong side of public opinion against the opportunity to defeat the Government.

Perhaps Johnson’s real plan is first to up vaccination rates among young people and then withdrawn the passport scheme. If not, the Labour leader will come under pressure from the party’s MPs to abandon his lawyerly caution and go in for the kill.

McVey, Walker and Wragg. The most rebellious Conservative MPs in our survey of major votes.

22 Jun

Last week, ConservativeHome published a list of the 49 Conservative MPs who voted against the Coronavirus Regulations. As we said at the time, it was the biggest Covid rebellion since December 2, and a reminder that even if a Government has a huge majority, it can easily be rocked about by unprecedented events (a pandemic).

From 2020 and 2021, we have been keeping track of rebellions. It’s worth adding that rebellions can take various forms – Chris Green resigning as a ministerial aide, for instance – and that there have been many minor ones, so there may be one MP who is technically the most rebellious on less prominent issues. However, for the purpose of one article we’ve focused on major voting events. So who exactly has pushed back the most?

First of all, here is a list of the rebellions we tracked – with a nickname and link to recap on what each was about:

And without further ado, we can reveal that Esther McVey, Charles Walker and William Wragg are joint first in our “most rebellious MP” league table – with nine rebellions to their names. Here’s how they rebelled.

Esther McVey:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Third lockdown
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

Charles Walker:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

William Wragg:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus Regulations

MPs who have rebelled on eight occasions:

Graham Brady:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Philip Davies:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Richard Drax:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Andrew Rosindell:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Genocide Amendment
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Desmond Swayne:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on seven occasions:

Philip Hollobone:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus Regulations

Tim Loughton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Anne Marie Morris:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Henry Smith:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Robert Syms:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. 10pm curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on six occasions:

Peter Bone:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Christopher Chope:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 1
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Davis:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Tiers
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Stephen McPartland:

  1. Huawei
  2. Lockdown
  3. Tiers
  4. Third lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

John Redwood:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Warburton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Tiers
  3. Third lockdown
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations
Some more notes:
  • We have stopped with MPs who have rebelled a maximum of six times during this period (out of 10 in total).
  • It’s interesting to note that some “familiar faces” when one thinks of a Tory rebel aren’t included in our league – Mark Harper, for instance, who leads the Covid Recovery Group.
  • Lastly, there are some new faces to our rebellion list: Siobhan Baillie, Karen Bradley and Miriam Cates were some of the MPs to recently vote against Coronavirus regulations.

Ryan Bourne: We can never be certain of the costs and benefits of lockdowns

30 Mar

Ryan Bourne occupies the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato, and is the author of Economics In One Virus.

A year since the first UK lockdown, the economic question most asked about Covid-19 is whether shutdowns would pass a simple cost-benefit test.

Such analyses have been demanded by Covid Recovery Group MPs and, indeed, the correlation between those wanting such evaluations and lockdown scepticism is now strong. Philip Lemoine, a shutdown critic,even suggested in the Wall Street Journal recently that the absence of government economic appraisals worldwide showed policymakers knew lockdowns would fail these economic tests.

I think there’s a more charitable explanation to policymakers’ reluctance to do them: a lockdown cost-benefit analysis is actually incredibly difficult to do well.

Certain issues, such as how much we should value lives saved from mitigating death risks, are contentious at the best of times. But the costs and benefits of crude business shutdowns, school closures, and stay-at-home mandates are far more uncertain than, say, assessing a minor work safety regulation.

First, defining the counterfactual from which to measure lockdowns’ marginal impacts is hard. Clearly, the alternative to lockdowns is not an unmitigated spread of the virus. Evidence from around the world shows that countries which spurned lockdowns also saw waves of infections, rather than a massive outbreak leading to herd immunity. Voluntary social distancing and other mitigation attempts, in other words, appear sensitive to the prevalence of the disease. When cases get high enough, human contact falls, eventually pushing the transmission rate of the virus below one.

The problem is that when these tipping points occur appears a moveable feast across time and countries, unmoored from any consistent prevalence threshold, influenced by pandemic fatigue, and probably strongly affected by chatter of potential lockdowns too. That leaves scope for lockdowns reducing human contact to have big marginal benefits if applied earlier, or in accelerating the downswing of curves. But it also makes it incredibly difficult to precisely set out what would happen in a counterfactual world.

Sceptics are right that unpicking lockdowns’ precise impact requires more than just eyeballing curves. Particularly because a government using lockdowns might exacerbate waves: if people expect governments to lockdown when things are bad, they might begin judging unlocked periods as “safe.” But it would be laughably convenient if you assumed the public would voluntarily mimic the effects of lockdowns precisely when they would otherwise be introduced, as some UK sceptics appear to allege.

A second, related difficulty in lockdown appraisal is that the costs and benefits change with our medical capabilities and knowledge of the virus: they are time and context specific. The UK’s first lockdown was introduced in spring 2020 under a cloud of uncertainty, with fears that, absent evasive action, hospital capacity could be overwhelmed, bringing severe social costs. At that time, we had little firm knowledge about whether a working vaccine would materialise either, and so whether “deaths averted” by lockdowns were merely “deaths delayed.”

The current national lockdown, in contrast, was introduced because of the highly transmissible variant and then-imminent vaccine rollout. The short-term benefits of this lockdown were thus more certain. But as vulnerable groups have now been jabbed at least once, the marginal benefits of lockdown days have now fallen dramatically, while the marginal costs of lockdowns continue to rise. Accounting for changing dynamics within a cost-benefit analysis, influenced by the availability of testing or vaccines that help “lock-in” any suppression of the virus, is therefore crucial to understanding lockdowns’ net effect.

A third and final difficulty arises because a whole range of lockdowns’ costs and benefits are subjective or highly uncertain. The worst attempted analyses so far just calculate the estimated value of lives saved and compare those to some estimate of lockdowns’ impact on GDP or, worse, government spending.

But this is hugely incomplete, ignoring worst-case tail risks and a range of other obvious impacts. On lockdowns’ benefits, for example, a lot of people self-evidently value avoiding infection risks, not just death risks. Some economists have even calculated that mitigating such non-fatality risks might double the monetary value of lockdowns’ health benefits.

On the cost side, the uncertainties are legion. Lost economic output is clearly a mere subset of lost wellbeing. How much should we value losses stemming from, say, someone being unable to attend the wedding of a family member, or visit a friend with depression? These are extremely subjective, but accumulate to very large costs indeed. That’s before we consider lost schooling’s effects on children’s life chances, or attempt to account for the impact of government shutdowns on entrepreneurialism.

No cost-benefit analysis I’ve seen so far has gotten close to developing a robust, country-specific counterfactual to lockdowns, nor accounted for all these effects. But that it is difficult doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t have attempted it, or that we now shouldn’t endeavour to carefully and retrospectively deliver such analysis.

Some dismiss cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns on the grounds that they may mislead the public given these uncertainties. Others, such as Mark Carney, think weighing health benefits against lost economic and social liberties is alien to society’s preferred values. The public clearly wanted to minimise the health impacts of Covid-19, Carney says, so governments should seek to deliver that in the least costly way possible.

Carney may be right on the psephology of what voters wanted and how this drove decision-making. But the trade-offs were real, and analysts shouldn’t shy away from highlighting them. Indeed, my own views on the UK lockdown experience are nuanced. They clearly “worked” in the sense of significantly reducing cases and deaths each time, while the case for them was strongest in Spring 2020 and December 2020, given the contexts of uncertainty and vaccine imminence.

And yet, overall, I still think the re-use of lockdowns after the summer Covid-19 lull is evidence of the failure of the government to think on the right margins. Even if lockdowns passed cost-benefit tests at certain times, that doesn’t make them “optimal.” The inability of the government to harness new knowledge and to unbundle the aspects of lockdowns that clearly imposed costs for scant public health gains, even after months to devise something less painful, is striking. Other countries likewise show how testing, tracing, cluster-busting, and guidance on ventilation, if done well, could have locked-in a lot of the gains of suppression without the massive downsides.

During the next few years, careful analyses will seek to unpick the effects of lockdown relative to counterfactual worlds. Such are the contestable assumptions and uncertainties, though, I suspect we’ll never get a cost-benefit analysis that “resolves” this debate.

Robert Sutton: The protection of civil liberties must be placed at the heart of a reformed Public Health Act

1 Jan

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020, we have seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties in this country. The powers assumed by the government have allowed ministerial decree to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny and to regulate the minutiae of our everyday lives to a degree unimaginable just one year ago.

Yet the basis of these powers drawn from the Act is dubious. Notable legal scholars, particularly Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, have argued that the legislation is unsuitable for the executive powers which have been carried out in its name. Parliamentarians are similarly frustrated by the way the Act has been used to evade parliamentary scrutiny while some of the most consequential restrictions are rolled out on ministerial whim. Steve Baker, in his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, has repeatedly called for reform in this area.

Certainly, any legislation which is being used for such a constitutional distortion must be entirely unambiguous in its scope. The Act draws its authority in part from the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA). The PHA provides powers to restrict the movement of individuals known to have a communicable disease and to control spaces which are known to be contributing to contagion. Yet the current Covid-19 restrictions are far broader in their application that just to those individuals who are known to be infected, and this is where the Act treads into murky waters.

While the PHA is clear in putting forward what restrictions might be applied to individuals and premises known to be contagious (and these restrictions are entirely sensible), it is far less clear what the scope of its powers are with regards to individuals who are not infected with a communicable disease – the vast majority of citizens. The legal precedent on such issues is that, where there is ambiguous or general wording, such vagueness must not be used to curtail constitutional freedoms. Else, we would be able to take justify drastic actions using whatever legislation is unclear in its scope. But the Government seems uninterested in such precedent.

The primary piece of legislation which gives government powers to curtail civil liberties is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA). The CCA is a remarkable piece of legislation which allows a government to wield extraordinary powers in an emergency. As such, its use is strictly bound by ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of those powers. It is clear that these powers are lent to the government by Parliament, and for a limited period at a time. They can also be withdrawn by Parliament as it sees fit. The fear that an emergency might be exploited to evade the House of Commons by a power-hungry executive was precisely what the drafters had in mind when including such safeguards.

The necessity for Parliamentary scrutiny intrinsic to the CCA is why MPs have argued that the executive should be using it as the basis for coronavirus restrictions instead of the PHA, or that the PHA itself should be reformed to make clear the limits of its powers. Yet Boris Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of using the CCA as the legal basis of lockdown powers, so we return to the PHA to define that scope.

The current PHA certainly was not developed with the current situation in mind. So, as it stands, we find ourselves trapped in a middle ground, in which the legislation being used as the basis for lockdown is unsuitable for that purpose and incapable of giving such provisions as to ensure ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny. This gives the rather uncomfortable impression that the Government intentionally chose a legal basis which it could use knowing that it would be subject to a lower standard of Parliamentary scrutiny than that which would be required under the CCA.

Yet to try to circumvent Parliament in the exercise of executive power is extremely myopic. Whether the Government currently realises it or not, it is within their best interests to ensure that further restrictions are brought before Parliament. Parliament is not some constitutional inconvenience. It is the basis for our liberal democracy, the means by which legislation is given its moral authority and an exceptionally useful political tool to measure public perceptions of government plans.

By directly reforming the PHA to explicitly limit its scope, and to allow legislation carried in its name to face full scrutiny by Parliament, the Government would certainly face a short-term inconvenience of restricting the executive powers it has used lavishly thus far. But there would be an overwhelming long-term gain in ensuring that those measures passed have the direct consent of MPs and the indirect consent of their constituents. This would without doubt make for better and more resilient legislation and ensure that any further restrictions are more surely footed in both law and public opinion.

The case for “doing a Sweden” runs out of steam

21 Dec

From the start of the Coronavirus crisis, Sweden’s approach to managing the virus has sparked huge debate. While its Nordic neighbours, and many others, enforced strict lockdowns, Sweden took a more libertarian route, leaving most schools, businesses and restaurants open throughout the pandemic.

Sweden soon became known as an “experiment” in whether lockdowns work, with Covid “hawks” and “doves” closely monitoring it over the last year to see who would be proved right. Did the experiment pay off? Unfortunately, the answer now seems to be no.

Sweden has struggled immensely with the pressures of the second wave, with one Stockholm region recently reporting that 99 per cent of its intensive care beds were full, and the country recording its highest new case count yet (9,659) last Thursday. Sweden has had more deaths than the rest of Nordic countries combined (8,000 have died in Sweden compared to 400 in Norway), and even its King, Carl XVI Gustaf, claimed it had “failed” to manage Coronavirus.

The severity of the situation is most obvious from the fact that Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s Prime Minister, has increasingly intervened on pandemic policy. In other countries, having a leader do this would not be such a strange occurrence, but the Swedish Public Health Agency typically presides over such decisions. Löfven’s intervention has thus been taken as a sign he disapproves of its past strategy (as does the public – apparently – with support for Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, dropping by 13 points in a recent poll, and support for its public health agency dropping from 68 per cent in October to 52 per cent.).

On Friday, Löfven announced the strictest measures yet for Sweden, with the government lowering the limit at restaurants to four people per group and banning alcohol sales past 8pm. It has also asked citizens to wear face masks on public transport at certain times.

The measures still show Sweden cares greatly about freedom. It has not made face masks compulsory, for instance, and shops are responsible for deciding the number of people who can enter them at one time. Unlike in other parts of the world, there are no penalties for breaking the recommendations, and Löfven also still believes full lockdown was not the right choice for the country. However, he has said that if these measures do not have the planned effect, “the government will also plan to close those businesses”, so it remains to be seen how far Sweden will venture from its original Covid response.

Whatever the case, it is clear that there will be big implications for Sweden in the future in terms of its governance, with Tegnell said to be increasingly sidelined. Does the government want to continue letting the Public Health Agency take charge of health policy after the events of this year?

Some of the Sweden “experiment” is more complex than is sometimes made out. It still has a lower death rate than other countries, a higher population to the Nordic countries it is frequently compared with, and its GDP has not been as badly hit as other nations’, which will in turn have an impact on health.

But it’s still clear that the case for “doing a Sweden” will struggle after this point. While the Covid Recovery Group hasn’t called for a “Sweden” exactly, it has been deeply sceptical about the tiered system. With the current second wave situation, and Löfven’s intervention, it will find its arguments for reopening the economy increasingly hard to make. Not even the country that invented the “anti-lockdown” policy can now sell this approach.

Sunak opts to suck it and see

25 Nov

We must be thankful that no-one is forecasting that Government borrowing will rise to record levels this year.  Or Rishi Sunak wouldn’t have been in a position to announce that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

Apologies for the sarcasm – which isn’t aimed at the Chancellor’s measures, but is meant instead to provide an introduction to the thinking behind them.

One response to a ballooning deficit is to cut the rate of growth of spending.  That’s what the Coalition did after 2010, when the deficit hit seven per cent of GDP.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting a peak of 19 per this year.  But Sunak’s response is to raise the rate of spending.  Why?

Because in 2010 George Osborne judged the deficit to be structural (he was right), and his successor judges this one to be exceptional (he’s right, too).

It is almost entirely a product of the pandemic and what has followed.  It is in this context that the OBR forecasts the economy to shrink by 11 per cent this year and unemployment to hit 2.6 million next year.

In these circumstances, the Chancellor has found it impossible to produce the four year spending review he hoped for, and has been forced to issue one for a single year instead.

Furthermore, his statement was only one side of the tax and spending coin. Today, we got the spending.  In the Spring, we will get the Budget – and the tax.

Given all this, it will be very odd if Sunak turns up then with large-scale tax rises to raise revenue quickly.  The foundation of his measures today appears to be: suck it and see.

Broadly speaking, the spending package suggests that the Chancellor is going for growth.  That’s the logic of the infrastructure spending, the coming review of regulation, the new northern bank and the enlarged Restart programme.

The Levelling-Up Fund is a classic Treasury exercise in the English centralist tradition, with its central feature of bids from the provinces to Westminster for money.  So it is in a country with relatively few local taxes.

On that point, Sunak announced “extra flexibility for Council Tax and Adult Social Care precept”.  Local authorities will like that, council taxpayers not so much.

It’s worth stressing that the OBR’s forecasts, like all such animals, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Our columnist Ryan Bourne debunked its record on this site earlier this week.

If you walk down the sunny side of the street, you will smack your lips at the thought of a Roaring Twenties effect, as employment recovers, consumers spend, the hospitality sector booms and people pile into holidays abroad.

And it may be that post-Covid changes even out for the better, with a shift in activity and spending from city centres to the suburbs and countryside, together with music, art, theatre and all the rest of it.

That might not be such a bad things for towns and their centres, at which the new Levelling Up Fund is partly aimed.  Our columnist James Frayne believes they are a core concern for provincial voters, and government listens to him.

If on the other hand you stick to the shady side, you will point to the economic equivalent of Long Covid: fearsome economic and social bills for damaged mental health, postponed operations, lost educational opportunities.

All that is a big minus for levelling-up – because it’s the disabled, poor and disadvantaged who have been hit hardest by restrictions and lockdowns, especially if they work in the private sector.

The background in recent years is not encouraging.  Since the financial crash exploded, we haven’t grown at more than 2.6 per cent a year.  That suggests recovery may be sticky.

Sunak’s persuasive manner, grip of detail and spare eloquence have served him well during this crisis.  Others holding his post would not have survived roughly ten major finance annoucements in less than a year.

It’s not as though he hasn’t sometimes had to recast his plans – as in October, when he pumped more money into his Job Support Scheme.

And if the economics of his strategy are straightforward enough, its politics was sometimes a bit odd.  If the Government’s overall plan in the short-term is expansionary, why raise the minimum wage but curb public sector pay?

If spending on nearly everything else is rising, why crack down on the 0.7 per cent aid spend?  Doing so because you think aid is wasted or the target is wasteful is one thing.

But that wasn’t the basis of Sunak’s decision – since, after all, he said that the Government intends to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

The Chancellor also left a big unresolved question hanging in the air.  What will the Government do about the Universal Credit uplift?  Will it be extended or not?

The sense of a statement with contradictory messages was picked up Rob Covile of the Centre for Policy Studies.  (The Treasury would do well when the Budget approaches to look at its supply side ideas.)

“Feels slightly like Treasury couldn’t decide whether the message was ‘tighten belts’ or ‘we’re still spending’,” he tweeted. “So we’re getting two or three minutes of each in turn.”

That first element in the Chancellor’s statement, plus the OBR’s horrid short-term forecasts, comes at a bad time for the Government.

For tomorrow, the toughened tiering details are announced. Lots of Conservative MPs won’t like them.  The detail of which tiers apply in which areas will be published, too.  Many Tory MPs will like those even less.

Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Mark Harper, and the Covid Recovery Group will say that the economic damage of restrictions is so severe that the Commons should not vote for more – at least, without an impact assessment.

They may not be alone.  “These measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one,” Jeremy Wright declared in the Commons during the recent debate on the lockdown regulations.

He and Edward Timpson (another ex-Minister) plus other MPs backed the Government but, sounded a cautionary note.

Will the prospect of vaccines be sufficient to rally the doubters round?  Or will they take a leaf from the book of Theresa May, who savaged the regulations during the same debate?

We shall see – but Ministers are not helping themselves by dodging requests for that impact assessment, urged by this site and others, and the subject of a dogged campaign by Mel Stride, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee.

All in all, Sunak is shaping up to go for growth.  Good for him.  Nonetheless, he must watch and wait to see how and when the economy rebounds.  Brady and company are less patient.