Andrew Gimson’s Budget sketch: The Chancellor quotes Tennyson and delivers a lesson in levelling up

3 Mar

“That which we are we are,” the Chancellor declared as he reached the end of his Budget Statement.

Could heavens! Could this prosaic figure be about to raise our spirits by launching forth into the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses?

There can be little doubt those words were in the mind of whoever drafted Rishi Sunak’s peroration:

…that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Sunak has the benefit of a traditional English education, and will surely have spotted the reference.

But Tennyson’s ending was presumably felt to be at once too lyrical and too modest. For although the Chancellor admitted the economy has suffered its largest fall “in over 300 years”, he had no desire to suggest we have been “made weak by time and fate”.

He adopted instead the manner of a teacher addressing a mixed ability class whom he intends to “level up”, as he put it, even though most of us are not much good at maths, and economics is dismal science we do our best to avoid.

So Sunak had to be slow, and lucid, and conceded that if we would rather leave the economics to him, that would be fine.

“I do want to be honest about what I mean by sustainable public finances,” he assured us, and then, a moment or two later, “I have and always will be honest with the country about the challenges we face.”

Not long afterwards, he said of the changes to corporation tax, “I recognise that they might not be popular but they are honest,” and announced that he wants to be “honest about the challenges facing our public finances”.

Even the dimmer members of the class were starting by now to get the message that the Chancellor wishes us to accept that he is honest, but not all of us were sure we fully understood what he meant by “challenges”, a term other politicians often use when they mean “insurmountable difficulties”.

The Chancellor proceeded to give us a geography lesson. He said that a Treasury which acts for the whole United Kingdom “demands a different economic geography”. In this way, he explained in a level tone, we shall achieve “the levelling up” which we require.

There followed the grand recitation of the eight new freeports in England, stretching from Plymouth to Teesside, after which we hoped to get Tennyson, but were disappointed. Perhaps the speechwriter just had a bet with a friend that he could get a line of the poet into the speech without anyone noticing.

Boris Johnson will certainly have noticed, for his head is full of poetry. He sat listening in a supportive way, emitting audible “hear hears” from behind his mask, but jiggling his right knee up and down in a manner suggestive of unbearable mental tension.

Sir Keir Starmer rose to reply, and was rather good: in a different league to Jeremy Corbyn. Insofar as it is possible to hold an almost empty Chamber, he held it.

But if he is to be Prime Minister, he needs this Government to fail, and Sunak spoke with the self-confidence of a man who has not yet failed at anything.

Richard Holden: We shouldn’t try to win a spending arms race with Labour in this Budget – which we would lose anyway

1 Mar

Fight Fitness Guru, Consett, Co. Durham

During the last fortnight, the white wasteland of frozen fields has given way to the flora of spring in County Durham.  The thaw in the land of the Prince Bishops is being met with a broader feeling in the towns and villages that spring is on the way.  With 20,000,000 vaccinations done and accelerating, as well as the Prime Minister’s roadmap providing clarity for the future, there is a real feeling that the tide is turning.

This week’s Budget must be another step along that road.  However, with so many competing concerns it will be a difficult balance to strike.  To get it right, it’s going to be essential to zoom out and look to where we want to be in a few years’ time.

Our economy has taken a pounding because of Covid-19.  Three hundred billion pounds in extra spending and support, paying people’s wages through furlough and supporting jobs and businesses has been provided.

Three hundred billion pounds extra: that is wartime levels of additional expenditure. For context, it is more than twice the size of the NHS budget annually. It’s an extra £4,500 for every man woman and child in the UK, or about £12,000 for every income-taxpayer in extra spending: money that’s had to be borrowed.

The support has been colossal and necessary. It has protected businesses and jobs and crucially will enable our economy to bounce back as quickly as it can. But this backing wouldn’t have been possible if the Government hadn’t taken the necessary decisions to keep spending under control during the last few years.

Colloquially, this point is made frequently by my constituents, along the lines of: “I’m glad it was you lot in and not Labour. If they’d been in ,God knows what would have happened.”

Which takes me to the political.  One of the biggest gateways to so-called “Blue Wall” voters switching from Labour to Conservative was Jeremy Corbyn. But this wasn’t just because of the terrorist sympathising and antisemitism. Or Keir Starmer’s policy of betraying democracy over Brexit. It was also because of Labour’s economic credibility.

People stopped listening to Labour’s promises when they became increasingly outlandish.  Remember them? Free broadband for all, give WASPI women £30,000 each, cancel student debt and make university education taxpayer-funded. The list went on – all with no plan to pay for it: it was fantasy economics that lacked basic credibility.

This is where we Conservatives now need to be careful, and why Rishi Sunak needs to tread a fine line. We cannot, nor should we wish to, win an arms race with Labour over who can spend more taxpayers’ cash.

We’ve not spent the long, hard yards of the last decade, undoing the catastrophic position Labour left in 2010, to let that credibility go. The reason we’ve been able to support the country through the global pandemic is because we’d had credible spending plans for the last decade. The reason Labour couldn’t win in 2010 is because Labour believed its own hubris about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and, to nab a much-loved phrase from George Osborne, “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining.” And the result was the famous note from Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury: “there is no money left.”

Given such an analysis of where we are, then: what’s next? The budget must focus on three things:

  • Recovery. Allowing the country, especially our hardest hit sectors to bounce back from Covid – and in doing so avoid a massive spike in unemployment.  This week, I led 68 Conservative backbenchers in writing to the Chancellor about support for pubs (massive employers of young people) via keeping beer duty down. It’s vital that he also allows our high streets breathing space regarding business rates. And for families in constituencies like mine, where for so many a car is essential, fuel duty rises, which Conservatives have found hard against for a decade, need to be avoided.
  • Delivery. Keep building towards our key manifesto commitments on public services: more police, more nurses, crucial infrastructure and deliver on the levelling up promise that was made.
  • Credibility. Long-term economic stability with borrowing under control to allow us to keep our debt – and crucially our debt interest payments – under control.  We can’t just hope that interest rates stay this low forever: they won’t. Only a balanced plan will allow the Government the space to deliver on the first two objectives of recovery and delivery.

It’s a tall order, and the Chancellor needs to be clear, honest, and fair in what he spells out. Those who’ve profited during the pandemic and those with the broadest shoulders should take the lion’s share of slack as we now deal with the consequences of it.

As for Keir “Goldilocks” Starmer – naturally, nothing will be ‘just right’.  But he won’t come up with any other real proposals, either. He’s opposed to anything that will raise revenue, but Labour MPs will doubtless demand more spending.  The party is all over the place, with a front bench hopelessly out of its depth, and a broader one so divided as to the way forward that it’s hardly a surprise Sir Keir is unable to get them to agree on anything but to abstain.

So Labour’s economic credibility will remain in tatters. We need ours to remain strong.

This spring in North West Durham and across the “blue wall”, let’s ensure that the growth we see is built to last. Unsustainable borrowing might be Labour’s answer, but it can’t be ours. Without doubt, at some point, winter will come again.

And when it does, we’ll need to respond to it from a position of strength with flexibility – as we have this time.  The electorate will not forgive us is we don’t ensure long-term credibility. Without it we put both a sustainable recovery from the global Coronavirus pandemic and delivery of our manifesto in jeopardy.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it on the Budget is: it’s all about economic credibility, stupid. Because come 2024, it certainly will be.

Parliament should vote monthly from March on ending the lockdown

23 Feb

Perhaps the most significant moment during Boris Johnson’s statement on the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown came when he was questioned by Paul Bristow.

The Peterborough MP asked the Prime Minister about the five week gap between each of the plan’s five stages.  In sum, his question was: if the date on which each stage is due to begin can be put back, why can’t it also be brought forward?  Why a rigid five week delay?

Johnson’s answer was that the five week gap is “crucial…For instance, we will need four weeks to see whether the opening of schools has caused an uncontrollable surge in the pandemic, and then a week to give advice and so on”.

This five week delay, which gives the plan its inflexible character, is in the Prime Minister’s view “dictated by the science” – and suggests that we were wrong yesterday to suggest that it might be relaxed if better progress than expected is made early.

Strange but true: lockdown sceptics (such as the 13 Conservative backbench MPs, including Bristow, who yesterday urged a faster restiction lift) have today been joined by none other than the high priest of shutdowns – Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.

“Hopefully what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections. In which case, there’s a chance we can accelerate the schedule,” he said on Times Radio.  Number Ten insists that this won’t happen.

The sum of the Government’s view will be informed by figures that won’t be in the 60-page roadmap document: its estimate of death numbers, cases and hospitalisations if restrictions are lifted earlier (and therefore of the threat to the NHS’s operability).

The Prime Minister, his top quad of Ministers and SAGE will be worried about how high vaccination failure rates, the number of those unvaccinated and potential new variants could push those figures.

That anxiety was the sum of his answer to the Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, Mark Harper, who pointed out that groups one to nine in the Government’s scheme will have been vaccinated by the end of April.

These are everyone over 50 and those aged 16 to 64 with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to Covid.  “Those groups account for 99 per cent of deaths and around 80 per cent of hospitalisations,” Harper said.

“So for what reason, once they have been vaccinated and protected from Covid by the end of April at the latest, is there any need for restrictions to continue?”  Johnson reverted to his point that vaccination doesn’t necessarily equal protection.

You might argue that the vaccines need a bit of time to kick in, and that Harper’s date is say a fortnight premature.  Or you may believe that the Prime Minister is right.  Or that all restrictions should end now bar voluntary social distancing, masks and handwashing.

Or you may have a quarrel with details of the proposals.  For example, the restriction on outdoor sports activity until March 29 seems Cromwellian.

Or you may think that some are already honoured more in the breach than the observance – such as the restriction on meeting outdoors with more than one person.

Above all, you may go back to Bristow’s point, and ask why restrictions can’t be lifted more quickly than explained if hospital numbers fall faster than expected.

We lean towards thinking that the roadmap journey looks on the slow side, but acknowledge that the calculations are not easy, and may change: essentially, they boil down to lives v livelihoods, and lives v lives, as they always have: cancer deaths, say, versus Covid deaths.

That’s assuming in this last case, of course, that the NHS is operating as normal, more or less.  But the most pressing question isn’t who’s right or wrong.  It’s who should take the decision – and how often.

Johnson confirmed to Graham Brady yesterday that there will be a vote on the renewal of emergency powers before Easter, which falls this year on April 4.

The Commons should also vote on these at least twice thereafter: at the end of April – which would give the House a chance to test Harper’s view – and the end of May.

Our best guess is that the Commons wouldn’t vote at any point to speed up the Government’s plan, since more Conservative MPs would vote with Ministers than against them, and opposition MPs would abstain at the very least.

But this is beside the main point – which is that the Executive should propose, the Legislature dispose, and that in this case there should be regular opportunities to test the will of the house as the facts emerge.

In that way, life would be breathed into the Prime Minister’s slogan of “data, not dates”.  At the moment, we are being offered data – and dates maybe later than those given, but not earlier.

On one point, however, all can surely agree.  It is wonderful to see so large a proportion of our vulnerable people being vaccinated so fast, due to good Ministerial decisions, scientific prowess and effective management.

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.

Ryan Bourne: The lifting of lockdown. Yes to prudence but no to pessimism. The projections of these gloomy scientists seem absurd.

16 Feb

Ryan Bourne is the author of Economics In One Virus, a forthcoming book available for pre-order on Amazon UK. 

As Boris Johnson’s February 22 “roadmap out of lockdown” day draws closer, the Prime Minister faces sharply conflicting advice. The backbench Covid recovery group (CRG) demands that schools return on March 8, and that all lockdown restrictions are lifted by April’s end.

Scientists and Covid-19 modelers from Warwick University and Imperial College, on the other hand, say a gradual lifting of restrictions from March through July would see between 83,000 and 150,000 people perishing from a massive fourth wave death spike. They recommend “non-pharmaceutical interventions” remain intact through summer.

Who is right? Given what we know, the politicians appear slightly too bullish. The modelers, on the other hand, seem ridiculously pessimistic. But a great deal of uncertainty remains and value judgments abound.

Committing to the CRG’s timetable would leave the Prime Minister a hostage to disappointment if first vaccine doses prove less efficacious against death than widely believed. Precautionary prudence demands we wait to see clear trends in the data before delivering major policy change. Especially because a release, amplified by its signal, will inevitably raise the prevalence of the disease over time, including among those still susceptible who would be vaccinated soon.

Looking at the collapse of children’s infections during lockdowns suggests that school closures may have had a large impact on disease prevalence. So here, in particular, I’d be more cautious as first doses continue to be administered to groups 1-9. Yes, the societal damage of lost schooling is enormous. But is re-opening them entirely in early March, rather than a month or so later when prevalence is much lower, really so crucial to life chances, on the margin, to risk the lives of those for whom vaccinations will occur within weeks?

This is not to say that targeted relaxations cannot begin. Outdoor activity, certain sports, and indoor retail could be green-lighted relatively safely, with the usual social distancing protocols and stronger guidance on ventilation. If schools can do rapid surveillance testing, we could have targeted closures only if multiple cases arise. In the depressing absence of that, localised returns in rural low disease prevalence areas seems reasonable. But until the high first dose efficacy against death or severe disease is confirmed and we’ve vaccinated more people, I’d probably opt for slightly more caution.

For all that I might quibble with the CRG on timing, they appear to understand the coming trade-offs better than certain scientists. Pretty soon, almost all over-70s will have been vaccinated once. These demographics make up 88 per cent of deaths to date. Vaccinations should therefore slash deaths rates observably in March, in turn reducing lockdowns’ benefits.

Hospitalisations will prove stickier, because of the large numbers of middle-aged people susceptible to severe disease. The capacity of the hospital system will remain a binding constraint, hence why everyone is advocating a glidepath to normalisation, rather than a “big bang” reopening.

That said, the modelers’ pessimism for even gradual relaxations is jarring. The Warwick model predicts 2,000 deaths per day in August if we “fully reopen” by July, even if 95 per cent of care home residents and 85 percent of over 50s are vaccinated. That would mean more deaths this summer than the pandemic to date. Imperial’s model assumes an 85 per cent general population vaccine take-up, but similarly predicts 130,800 more deaths even if vaccines are administered at a sustained rate of three million per week.

The logic behind these shocking figures is that if 85 per cent of people get a first dose which is, say, 70 per cent effective against symptomatic disease, then 40.5 per cent of people remain “at risk.” Presuming normal Covid-19 death risks apply to those with symptomatic infection implies lots of people still susceptible to death. On the path to everyone getting vaccinated, then, they believe a gradual release of restrictions will see an increasingly unmitigated spread that kills many, even accounting for the higher efficacy Pfizer vaccine and second doses.

Yet these assumptions seem absurd. Vaccine take-up rates have been higher so far. Official data for England through 7 February suggests 93.5 per cent of those eligible in care homes have been jabbed once, as have 91 per cent of over 80s, 96 per cent of 75-79s, and 74 per cent of 70-74s already. The modeling, meanwhile, seems to ignore entirely the evidence that vaccines might mitigate against severe disease or death, even among those vaccinated who still catch Covid-19. If confirmed in data, that alone would invalidate these results.

What’s more, modelling restriction relaxation as if this is synonymous with unmitigated spread seems misguided. Those in vulnerable groups who cannot take vaccines will surely remain cautious. In fact, they would probably be even more careful in the knowledge others are mixing more. A host of voluntary social distancing, mask-wearing, and an ongoing preference for outdoor activity will surely remain for many younger people too ,as they seek to avoid disease in spring and summer before being vaccinated or boosted. Releasing government mandates, in other words, won’t return us to “normal” behaviour.

But even if we did a lot of normalisation, lockdown-like measures would still be disproportionate against the end risks. If severe disease and death rates will indeed plunge after one dose, the value of the health benefits of population-wide restrictions fall dramatically relative to their extraordinary costs too.

Some scientists advising Johnson use banalities such as “the lower the cases can get, the better.” But the idea that nationwide restrictions remain the most cost-effective policy in a world where the overall fatality and severe disease risks are low, and highly concentrated in a tiny slither of the population, is clearly absurd.

Once priority groups have had their vaccines, the Great Barrington Declaration will be essentially correct: “focused protection” for those still vulnerable will be the order of the day.  This will be all the more feasible given the smaller number of people still at risk. For a much lower social cost than lockdowns, we could send these people a healthy supply of N-95 masks, indoor ventilation machines, a year’s worth of rapid testing kits for any guests, and have taxpayers finance carer networks that minimize disease-spreading risks for them.

Such measures will obviously be far cheaper in mitigating the remaining risks than imposing massive restrictions on everyone indefinitely. And, of course, ongoing surveillance will continue to monitor new mutations and local clusters, just as many businesses will also maintain mask requirements that mitigate risks for vulnerable patrons.

What scientists must acknowledge, then, is that the same logic that said lockdowns’ benefits were huge when vaccinations were imminent says they could be tiny once vulnerable people are protected. If first dose efficacy proves as strong as we think, the Prime Minister will have to break with those overly cautious scientists who fail to think about the marginal costs and benefits of lockdowns as vaccinations proceed.

Neil O’Brien: Imperfect vaccines, new variants, domestic mutations. Why there must be no rush out of lockdown.

8 Feb

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

At last, the happy ending.  As EU politicians squabble, we’re vaccinating faster than anywhere else in Europe. The Church of England is allowing cathedrals to be used as vaccination centres, and the footage of orderly queues in Salisbury and Lichfield made me feel like we were in the happy ending of Powell and Pressburger’s patriotic war movie, A Canterbury Tale.

But whenever a movie has a happy ending, I worry someone will make an awful sequel: 2020 the revenge. As the Prime Minister said, alluding to The Great Escape, it would be tragic to “tangle ourselves in the last barbed wire” just as we escape from the pandemic.

He’s right. Ministers face two uncertainties.

The first: how fast we can go in opening up without triggering an upsurge in conventional Covid.

The second: how to manage the risk of new, vaccine-resistant Covid strains being imported – or equally importantly, developing here.

Armour with holes in

Clearly, we can’t just open everything tomorrow. Until mid-February we’re vaccinating the over 70s. But half of Covid patients in intensive care are under 60. Even once we vaccinate younger groups, it takes up to three weeks to fully kick in.

And the vaccination programme is a suit of armour with holes in. Some older people won’t get jabbed, and no vaccine is 100 per cent effective. The Oxford vaccine showed a 59.5 per cebt reduction in the symptomatic cases in clinical trials. A more recent paper suggested a 67 per cent reduction.

Currently, older people are protected not just by growing vaccination rates, but national lockdown and their very high levels of social distancing. Only over time, as we open up, will we really find out how big the holes in our armour are. And we don’t yet know how long we’ll be in this tricky phase between vaccinating the most vulnerable, and getting to the full benefits of herd immunity.

We need to pace ourselves. We don’t want to go for a big bang reopening only to trigger a new wave and be forced backwards. In the coming weeks we’ll start to fully reopen schools – quite rightly – as the first step back to normality. Reopening schools will increase virus transmission. The uncertainty is by how much.

A study in Nature looked found closing educational settings was the second most effective intervention to reduce transmission. A study in The Lancet found school closures cut transmission. A study from the US showed statewide school closures reduced new cases. In December SAGE concluded that “overall, accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age (high confidence)”.

The Nature paper found similar effects for both primary and secondary schools, and the number of school based outbreaks in the UK is similar for both, though ONS data (about to be updated) suggested older children were much more likely to be exposed to the virus. There’s options about how we reopen in areas where rates remain high: primary and secondary; different rotas or protective measures – there are lots of choices if needed.

Given the uncertainty about the effect of schools reopening, we should allow time between opening one thing (schools) and the next, so we can judge their effects.

It’s time for Burkean conservatism: As Burke wrote: “By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first, gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series”.

New variants

The harder question is how to manage the risk from new variants. We’re seeing lots of them around the world, but also within the UK. There was the Kent variant, now there’s Bristol and Liverpool variants. A variant from South Africa sadly made its way here, but one from Brazil seemingly hasn’t.

How big is the risk from vaccine-evading variants?  Evidence is emerging. The Kent variant has a less dangerous N501Y mutation, which makes it more infectious, but doesn’t let it dodge vaccines.

The South African variant has that plus the E484K mutation, which may reduce vaccine efficacy.

The Financial Times reported last week that in clinical trials Novavax’s new vaccine was found to be 89 per cent effective in its UK trial (where the E484K mutation is rare), but had just 49 per cent overall efficacy in South Africa.  Lab evidence also suggests it may make the holes in our armour much bigger. The paper also recently reported that the South African strain reduced the effectiveness of the Oxford / AstraZeneca strain too.

Concerningly, the Liverpool variant adds the E484K mutation to “old” Covid, while the Bristol variant combines the Kent variant with the E484K mutation, making it like a home grown version of the South African strain. We’re still learning how coronaviruses evolve to dodge immunityhow they do it, and how we should respond.

I support the measures the government is taking to tighten our borders for starters: requiring negative tests pre-travel, hotel quarantine from risky countries, making sure travellers do isolate. It’s a monumental task to set these systems up. But worth it. Covid is likely to bounce around the world mutating for some time. Once in place, we can steadily toughen these border controls as appropriate.

The prize of us getting back to normal life in the UK seems worth the price of inconvenience for travellers: if you hate lockdowns, you should back the toughening of borders.

Sadly, managing the risk from new variants isn’t only about borders, because we’re seeing new variants originating in the UK. As vaccinations rates go up, the evolutionary incentive to mutate and dodge them increases. It’s like anti-microbial resistance. The reason doctors tell us to finish antibiotics courses is that it is dangerous to wound but not kill bugs: that way you end up breeding superbugs.

The less of the virus we have in circulation, the fewer new variants we will see, and the lower the risk of a really bad vaccine-dodging variation emerging inside the UK.

Manaus in Brazil shows the dynamic in extreme form. The Covid-sceptic government failed to act so, in spring 2020, it became the Covid capital of the world. They buried huge numbers of people in vast mass graves, but never reached herd immunity. Instead, uncontrolled spread has made it a hothouse for new more dangerous strains: a new local variant has emerged to re-infect survivors.

So there’s a second consideration for ministers. It’s not just that we have to pace ourselves to avoid a new wave of “old” Covid.  Driving down infections more also reduces the uncertain risk of a vaccine-dodging variant which could set us back a really long way.  And small differences in the timing of opening measures can make big differences to infection rates.

The Prime Minister set out a clear timetable and set of criteria for making decisions on reopening, one of which is that nothing game-changing emerges to blow us off course. We should stick to the plan.  The other day, he said we were making progress but it’s too soon to “take your foot off the throat of the beast”.

As a classicist, the mutations of Covid-19 might remind the him of the mythical beast Hydra, which grew two new heads if you chopped one off.  Heracles eventually solved this problem by cutting them all off, burning the stumps, and burying the last head under a giant rock. We might not need to take quite such drastic measures.  But so close to a happy ending, it’s wise to keep controlling the virus while we gauge these emerging risks.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

Liam Fox: Are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

24 Jan

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Over 71,000 more people died in 2020 than would have been expected in a normal year. Apart from a deluded and dangerous minority whose addiction to conspiracy theories leave them in denial about the impact (or even the existence) of Covid-19, most people recognise that these excess deaths are due directly or indirectly to the pandemic.

The UK has been recognised as one of the world leaders in the vaccination programme. Britain has made £548 million available to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access facility (COVAX), to support equitable and affordable access to new coronavirus vaccines and treatments around the world.

The rollout of the vaccine to the UK population has also been impressive, although there is growing concern about the decision to extend the period between doses of the Pfizer (but not the Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine.

If we are to continue to lead globally on the issue – and this year’s G7 summit gives us an ideal opportunity to do so – we must be clear about the reality in which we find ourselves, and recognise that the data systems we currently have will be inadequate to deal with the challenges of global pandemic.

We need to understanding that, contrary to a great deal of assertion, this is unlikely to be a “once in a generation” event.

The first major, and deadly, coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century was SARS in 2002.  The second was MERS in 2012. So we are now in the third major global coronavirus outbreak in 20 years.

While the first two had higher death rates than Covid-19, it is the transmissibility of the latest viral variant that has caused such damage. There is, however, no guarantee that we will not get both a more deadly and more transmissible outbreak in the future.  It is likely that Coronavirus is here to stay, and that we will have to deal with potential new variants emerging from time to time around the world.  To have any chance of dealing with this effectively, we need to develop international protocols, and this means having standardised recording of data.

In the UK, there is no single measure to calculate the mortality rate for Covid-19 accurately . We use inferences from total excess death rates, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, and those who have had Covid-19 mentioned as a contributory cause on their death certificate.

None of these on their own can give us a truly accurate picture about the cost in lives of the virus.  There are three different types of patients who may fall within the excess mortality figures.

The first group is those who have died of Covid, i.e: where this was the main cause of death.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 made changes to death certification which may cloud the waters in this regard. While it is still intended that the doctor who attended the deceased during their last illness should, where possible, complete the death certificate, the Act also allows this to be completed if a patient was not seen by any medical practitioner during their last illness.

If that happens, a doctor would need to state to the best of their knowledge and belief the cause of death.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable ‘direct’ or ‘underlying’ cause of death for the purposes of the certificate but, although it is a notifiable disease, this does not mean that deaths from it must be reported to the coroner.

This may well result in fewer post-mortems being conducted, and a valuable source of data missed.  Some autopsy studies of patients who died of “influenza” during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic showed that, while almost all patients had evidence of bacterial pneumonia, fewer than 50 per cent tested positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA. In other words, there was a significant overestimate of the numbers who had actually died of influenza itself.

The second group is those who died with Covid19, that is, those who had been diagnosed with a positive test ,but who may have died of other, unrelated causes.

It seems strange to many that someone who tested positive for the virus but was hit by a bus within a month is counted as a Covid-19 death.

The third group is those who have died as a consequence of Covid-19, including those who did not access medical care because of lockdown, or those who were unable to access the appropriate care because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This will be of importance in determining how we run our healthcare services, especially if pandemic is likely to occur more frequently.  It has long been the practice in the NHS to run at very high bed occupancy rates.

We have to ask, if pandemic is going to be potentially a more frequent event, whether this is tilting the balance between efficiency and resilience in the wrong direction.  Given that we have spent billions of pounds trying to stop the capacity of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, would it not be more sensible (and potentially more financially prudent) in future to run the system with many more beds available than we expect to need at any one time?

Given the overall cost to our economy and the impact on the future of our public finances, perhaps we need to re-visit some of the assumptions that have underpinned policy under governments of all political colours. ,

Britain has a real opportunity to lead the global debate and the government can lead the way with the shakeup of Public Health England and the Resilience Unit within the Cabinet Office, both of which should have been better prepared for any pandemic.

I have supported the Government in all the lockdown measures they have taken in relation to Covid-19 but, in future, are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

If not, what are the international protocols that we will need to develop as a global community and what are the metrics that we will require to make them work? Without proper information, how will we be able to determine the case fatality rate (the deaths from a disease compared to the total number of people diagnosed in a particular period) which will be one of the key measures that we will have to make in the event of a new outbreak?

We will also need enforceable global rules around transparency and notification. As we head for the G7, there can be no better example of “Global Britain” than for Britain to take a lead in pandemic preparedness and work towards global definitions that will enable us to avoid the uncoordinated global response that we have seen during Covid19.

Lord Ashcroft: For many voters, America’s election was not about Biden – but a referendum on Trump

20 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Joe Biden’s inauguration today will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by millions in America and around the world. The moment crowns the victory not just of Biden, but of the institutions of American democracy that many still fear are under threat. After a fortnight of extraordinary drama that saw the storming of the Capitol building and a second impeachment for an outgoing president, it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – the movements that brought American politics to where it is, and their effect in the election that feels as though it took place not just eleven short weeks ago but in another age.

If the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House will stand as one of the defining political events of our time, its successor last year was in many ways at least as remarkable: the supposedly unpopular president winning more votes than any previous Republican, losing only to the candidate with the most votes ever. This week I am publishing my analysis, based on four years of research throughout the US as well extensive polling and focus groups during the 2020 campaign. The research both helps to explain what happened and why, and gives some clues about what we can expect in the next chapter of American politics. Here are some of the key points.

What is President Biden’s mandate?

With a record-breaking haul of 81 million votes, Biden is the most successful presidential candidate in American history. But for many voters, the election was not about Biden but a referendum on Trump. I found 99 per cent of Trump supporters saying they approved of the job he had done, and nine in 10 said they would be voting for the incumbent; 94 per cent of Biden supporters disapproved of Trump’s performance and a quarter said they were voting mainly to get rid of him.

Those switching from Trump to Biden were most likely to mention disillusionment with Trump among their reasons; having high expectations of Biden or liking Democrat policies were at the very bottom of the list.

While policy concerns were different for Trumpers (the economy, immigration) and Biden backers (Covid, healthcare), another telling difference was the kind of leader they wanted. While three quarters of Trump enthusiasts would rather have a president “who does the right thing even if it is divisive,” a majority of Biden supporters would prefer one “who will create a more civil political climate and build consensus even if I don’t agree with everything they do.”

In other words, for many voters Biden had one job – to see off Trump – and he will accomplish his task today. The new president’s problems will begin with whatever he decides to do next. As with any successful political movement, especially one of this size, the coalition that elected Biden in 2020 is far from being a monolithic bloc. Its foundation is the Democratic base, many of whose members yearned for a more liberal, progressive direction and found the compromise of nominating an established moderate quite agonising. Many of them hoped that Biden’s victory would, in fact, usher in a much more radical Democratic era than might have been suggested by the new president’s record in Washington or his reassuringly temperate campaign style. These were joined by a group of new voters, younger and more ethnically diverse, who were opposed to Trump and all his works and were particularly driven to address racial injustice.

Then there is a much more moderate set of voters who wish above all for a calmer, less acrimonious form of politics. Less inclined to dismiss the Trump years out of hand, they were more likely than most to prefer a president who creates a more civil political climate. If they had doubts about Biden it was over his age and health, and the prospect that he might quickly be succeeded by a new face with a more radical agenda. What they wanted was not a Green New Deal but a bit of peace and quiet. Yet with Vice President Harris having the casting vote in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration has little excuse not to be bold. The potential for conflict and disappointment among his supporters is already apparent.

Trumpism without Trump?

Some see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trump and it’s presidency. Arguably, it’s a funny sort of repudiation that sees a president win 11 million more votes, and a higher vote share, than he did four years earlier. For many, the temptation to dismiss Trump supporters as the “basket of deplorables” and lump them all in with the Capitol-storming extremists will be greater than ever. But this would be an injustice and a mistake. As his reputation implodes, it is as important as ever to grasp what it was about the Trump offering that nearly half the electorate found so compelling.

Looking back at what he did and what his supporters told us during four years of research, I think this can be distilled into what we might call the Seven Tenets of Trumpism. An enduring belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that the US is different from, and in important ways, greater than, other countries; conviction that constitutional freedoms like free speech and the right to own guns are important and need defending; the belief that it is possible for anyone who works hard to be successful in America, whatever their background; rejection of political correctness and identity politics; belief in business, low taxes and deregulation; support for a forceful, independent foreign policy; and – crucially – willingness to tolerate a good deal of friction in politics in the cause of advancing these things.

The question for the Republican Party is whether this powerful proposition can be disentangled from the 45th president himself. Could you have Trumpism without Trump? In my research, one in three Trump supporters told us they approved of what he had done as president but disapproved of his character and personal conduct. This meant two thirds of his supporters said they approved of both his actions and the way he behaved. That’s not to say most will not have been horrified as they saw the seat of their democracy under attack. But for most of his presidency, what others saw as his outrageous behaviour was not just part of the package, but part of the appeal – a feature, not a bug. Many loved having a president who said exactly what they thought, refused to conform to politically correct orthodoxies and remained a political outsider.

Some would like the Republicans to put the whole Trump era behind it, but it won’t be that simple. The two parties in American politics have always drawn the base of their support from very different constituencies, but over the last forty years that fault-line has shifted completely.

On this map, the vertical axis represents security, in terms of things like health, income and occupation – the higher up, the more secure. The horizontal axis represents diversity, which includes factors like ethnicity and population density – the further to the left, the more diverse. Over the last 40 years, the Democratic party’s base of support has in economic terms grown steadily more upscale, while the Republicans have become the party of rural and small-town America. The coalition that sent Trump to the White House is different from the one that elected George W. Bush, let alone his father. In charting its new course, the Republican Party cannot simply trade this coalition in for a new one.

The task the Republicans now have is to hold together that base of support, and even expand back into the suburbs and cities themselves. To say that President Trump’s performance since the election has made this task harder would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Those who want it to remain “Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (as Don Junior had it at the fateful rally) might try the patience of mainstream Republicans beyond endurance: being uncouth on Twitter is one thing, inciting insurrection is altogether another. But those who want a Trump-free future for the GOP must find a way of distancing themselves from him while holding onto the millions – minus the extremist minority – that he brought into the Republican fold. This leads to another question – for another day – of whether the GOP will even continue to exist in its current form.

Can Biden reunite America?

For four years, Trump has been the focal point for divisions in American politics. But if he exacerbated those divisions, he did not create them. As we can see from this dashboard of our polling during the campaign, there are deep and genuine differences in outlook, priorities and values: the issues they care about, whether they believe minorities enjoy equal rights and opportunities, the role of the government, how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the things they worry about on a daily basis.

Combining these various views and attributes on one map makes for an interesting picture of the electorate. We see here how different issues, attributes, personalities and opinions interact with one another. The closer the plot points are to each other the more closely related they are.

We can see how issue concerns, political outlook, news sources, views of American life and Trump’s presidency were associated with support with one or another candidate at the 2020 election.

Such a divergence of views and priorities is the stuff of politics, and an equivalent map could be drawn of the electorate in any democracy. The divisions are made more acute, however, by the way each side views the motivations of the other.

Two thirds of Republicans said they thought people who vote Democrat and support Biden were “good people who want good things for America, we just disagree about how to achieve them.” However, only just over half of Democrats were prepared to say the same about Republicans and Trump voters: 42 per cent said these were “bad people who want the wrong things for America,” including majorities of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and those who describe themselves as very liberal, and two thirds of self-declared socialists.

Nine out of ten Biden enthusiasts said either that they thought Trump was the biggest cause of recent divisions in society or that he had made existing divisions worse. Most Trump supporters, meanwhile, thought America would be just as divided even if he had never run for president.

Accordingly, the two camps took different views when asked about politics in the post-Trump era. Only a small minority of voters thought things would go back to normal quite quickly when Trump left office. But while a majority of Biden enthusiasts and almost half of Biden-Trump switchers thought things would gradually return to normal, six in ten Trump enthusiasts thought politics would either remain just as divisive or become even more so after Trump’s departure.

While Biden supporters often said they wanted more unity and less division, this often seemed less evident in the way they spoke about the people who voted for Trump. “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country,” said one Democrat reflecting on the 2016 result. “Idiots and frickin’ old, racist white men.” The idea that his voters had simply lacked guidance by better informed people such as themselves was also a regular theme: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating the people in our lives?” agonised one woman. “Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

Trump voters, meanwhile, felt strongly that the calls for agreement and consensus were only really aimed in one direction. “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.” The supposedly tolerant left “is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump, then you’re the enemy.” As for the idea of Biden ending the divisions, “It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the President, I’m not sure he himself could do it.”

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Reunited Nation? American Politics Beyond The 2020 Election is published this week by Biteback.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

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

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.