Covid. Mass lockdowns v a Swedish option is a flawed choice. But if Ministers can’t make mass testing work, it’s the one we’ll have.

23 Sep

Perhaps Boris Johnson’s new plan will succeed.  Maybe factories and building sites will stay open, plus the retail and hospitality sectors, as well as universities and (crucially) schools.  Perhaps the move back from offices to schools will help keep Coronavirus on public transport under control.  If so, the firewall that Ministers want to build between work and home will stand.

In both, there is to be a new stress on compulsion.  At work, this will largely be limited to retail and hospitality, where the Government’s guidelines will become legal obligations, and the requirement to wear face masks will be extended.  At home, in family life and in leisure time, there is the rule of six, smaller weddings, restricted sports events, 10pm curfew for pubs.

All this will be enabled and enforced by Covid marshalls, higher fines and penalties, and not only the police but (the Prime Minister hinted) the army – and big lockdowns that cover groups of local authority areas.   As we say, maybe this plan will work, but we doubt it.  The most likely course ahead is a patchy schools’ service, which will drag parents away from work, plus a further clampdown on first hospitality and then retail.

Johnson suggested as much yesterday: “we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power, with significantly greater restrictions”, he told the Commons.  And although the plan’s outline is clear, its details are contested.  In that respect, we are where we were before: the Department of Health stresses tackling the virus, the Treasury supporting the economy.

Rishi Sunak appears to have staved off a more extensive crackdown on hospitality – for the moment, anyway – but the Government’s internal haggling and bargaining points to an uncomfortable truth.  The clampdown seems too extensive to satisfy a growing lobby within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, but not extensive enough to satisfy a significant chunk of the Government’s scientific advisers.

So there is a danger that it will fall between two stools, and be revised soon anyway.  In weighing where we are, it would be easy to vanish down the rabbit hole of detail (asking why, for example, it is considered safe to drink in pubs and drink in restaurants before 10pm but not afterwards).  Instead, we should stand back from yesterday’s change of tack, and think about the big picture.

When Covid-19 first gathered pace, we were told that a lockdown was necessary to save the NHS.  That is a clear goal – and an understandable one, since the public would not have tolerated TV pictures of overwhelmed hospitals, with ambulances incapable of discharging patients and others unable to get treatment at all, so dying at home without any palliative care.

After the original lockdown was eased, the emphasis shifted from “save the NHS” to “control the virus”.  The Prime Minister said yesterday that we should “safeguard the NHS”, but it wasn’t clear if the Government believes the rising caseload is a serious threat to it.  It appears that Ministers and their advisers are aiming, rather, to suppress the virus altogether.

That raises obvious questions about trade-offs – between driving down the virus and other healthcare objectives, and between lives and livelihoods: that’s to say, the wider workings of the economy which produces the growth, jobs and wealth without which the NHS would be unable to function in the first place.  We asked in May for the Government to publish a worst-case scenario for the service, and if it there is one we haven’t seen it.

Nor is it clear what those healthcare gains and losses have been so far.  Obviously, trying to calculate them is like trying to take a still photo of a moving person, but the effort must surely be made.  In its absence, opinion among Ministers and backbenchers is dividing, with a growing number – we can’t be sure of what it is – favouring a stress on voluntarism rather than compulsion: the Sweden option.

We believe that a choice between Sweden and lockdowns is a false one, for a simple reason.  Why would we model our response on the country with the eleventh highest number of deaths per head (Sweden) – only three places behind the UK – rather than one with the forty-fourth (Germany)?  We concede at once that these international comparisons are fraught with problems.

But that’s an issue for those who favour a Swedish-syle approach as much as those who support a German one.  In any event, as a country with the second largest economy in Europe, we are more easily considered alongside the country with the first – another, furthermore, with a relatively large population.  The fundamental difference between Sweden and Germany is the stress on testing.

The Government has handled some aspects of Covid-19 well (building the Nightingales) and some badly (failing to protect care homes).  Johnson will be consoled this morning by the fact that, if the initial polls are right, elite opinion on the Right may lean towards Sweden but the voters still support lockdown – though a growing and articulate minority do not, and exaggerated public fear of the extent of the virus brings problems in its wake,

Undoubtedly, however, Government communications have been more than a bit of a shambles – ever since, significantly, Ministers moved off the message of protecting the NHS.  In July, the Prime Minister was hoping for “a more significant return to normality from November…possibly in time for Christmas”.   Instead, we have a significant move from normality in September, which is set to last for six months.

We appreciate that all governments have made mistakes in handling the developing unknown of the virus, here and abroad.  But, frankly, too much hope has been invested in vaccines; too little stress has been placed on living with the virus; too much has been allowed to “the science” (with the latest dubious stress from the chief scientists on worst-case scenarios)  – and too much of the debate has swung between two unworkable extremes.

Big lockdowns of whole cities or metropolitan areas, which could well end up as a national one in effect, are not a solution, since they bring with them harmful outcomes and have an unclear objective.  Mass voluntarism might well be less damaging, but Sweden’s experience suggests it would bring higher death numbers with it – along with voter resistance, openings for Keir Starmer, and the canard that “the Tories don’t care about saving lives”.

Instead, Johnson needs to set clear testing targets, stick to them build on progress made, and stay on piste.  We are well aware of the problems. The UK doen’t have the laboratory capacity it needs, so scaling it up takes time.  Testing finds more cases, thus feeding public alarm. There are false positives (and negatives).  Some people will need tests won’t take them.  Others who take them don’t need them – or at any rate, need them less than, say, teachers.

Care homes have consumed a lot of the tests; the return of schools has had an impact; an earlier-than-expected upswing in cases has caught the authorities out.  Furthermore, we still await a workable NHS app, our health system is over-centralised, and effective tracing remains a work in progress.  But more tests, quick tracing, quarantine and mini-shutdowns if necessary (not the closure of whole cities and metropolitan areas) are the best-in-class solution.

It is one that would minimise the debate about trade-offs, since the economy would be able to return to nearer normal.  If it isn’t delivered, watch for pressure on the Chancellor for more furlough, more subsidies, more loans, and a shorter spending review – with higher taxes and lower spending coming later down the line.  And for the options to harden to two flawed extremes.

Sam Hall: Extinction Rebellion is completely wrong in its approach to climate change

15 Sep

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

As a Conservative environmentalist, I believe passionately in the need for stronger action on climate change. I initially regarded Extinction Rebellion as wrong, but well-meaning. I’ve now come to the conclusion they are not only wrong, but actively harmful to the cause they claim to champion.

During their first action in 2019, I was sympathetic to the urgency with which XR demanded action on climate change, and the importance they attached to the issue. I shared, to some extent, their frustration that it wasn’t given the prominence in political debates that its seriousness merits. And I admired their skill in triggering a national conversation on climate change.

However I now believe Extinction Rebellion have gone badly off course with their use of polarising tactics, and that their approach to fighting climate change is completely wrong.

It has become apparent, for example, that they predominantly direct their protests against people and organisations on the right of British politics. Boris Johnson, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Telegraph are some of their recent targets. But to address climate change effectively over multiple political cycles, we need the support of all political traditions – particularly Conservatives.

We need messages and messengers that will appeal to those groups among whom support for climate policies is lowest, not attacks on the political leaders and institutions they trust. We need to celebrate when once-sceptical Conservatives put forward good climate policies, not criticise their lack of purity.

Another problem is their uninspiring message of despair. Remember XR founder Roger Hallam’s claim that climate change will see billions of deaths, or children at school today will not survive to adulthood?

Of course, unmitigated climate change is incredibly dangerous, but fighting it requires us to be hopeful. We must believe that, if we act, we can succeed in stopping the most severe impacts. We shouldn’t dwell on apocalypse, but rather focus on solutions that create jobs and bring new industries to Britain, while making our towns and cities more prosperous, greener, and healthier places to live.

We also have to bring people with us. Yet by letting an all-powerful assembly, made up of a tiny unelected minority, decide our pathway to net zero, XR is attempting to short-circuit the democratic process.

We do need comprehensive public engagement on climate change, and there is certainly a useful role for assemblies in developing policy. But decisions should be taken by elected politicians that the voters can hold accountable and kick out of office if they choose.

Vital public consent for climate action would quickly be shredded by the pace of change they are demanding. Net zero by 2025 would be eye-wateringly expensive, and cause huge economic dislocation. Instead, we need a transition that is as quick as possible, but which gives people time to adjust, and companies the opportunity to invest for net zero as part of the normal business cycle.

Disagreeing with this 2025 target doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about climate change. Far from it. Environmental ambition should not – although frequently is – measured by the earliness of a target date or the scale of government spending. Truly ambitious policies must also be feasible, costed, and command the support of the public.

Nor is it about being ‘anti-science’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change agrees that a 2050 net zero target meets our obligations under the Paris Agreement.

While I would be delighted if technological innovation meant we could reach net zero before 2050, it is the case that our 2050 net zero target has a much sounder basis in science than XR’s 2025 deadline.

Nor should we excuse their extreme actions as creating political space for moderate proposals on tackling climate change. For one thing, that is not what most XR campaigners are aiming to achieve. They do not accept compromise.

More broadly, the media and parliamentary debate around Extinction Rebellion is increasingly focused on policing and human rights issues. Note that the statement on XR in Parliament last week was given by the policing minister, not the climate change minister.

Even the climate discussion they provoke is unhelpful. In the media, sceptics of climate science who opportunistically elide XR with mainstream environmentalism, are pitched against left-wing climate activists. XR’s demands and tactics are inimical to a reasoned, evidence-based debate on climate.

But enough negativity. Here is my alternative approach. We need a credible, deliverable and affordable plan to reach net zero by 2050. One that creates millions of well-paid green jobs across the country, that revitalises our towns and cities with the clean industries of the future, and that harnesses the genius of our scientists and the creativity of our entrepreneurs. One that gives consumers freedom to choose between attractive and compelling solutions, and where private-sector competition and government support make them affordable for all.

We need to create the frameworks for businesses to invest in clean technologies, including an appropriate balance of fiscal incentives, regulation, and market signals. And the government needs to make it easier for people to make greener choices in their daily lives, to gain skills to work in clean industries, and to participate in community efforts to improve their local environment.

We have so much more to do to get on track to, and reach, net zero. We need major programmes to upgrade homes, restore nature, and build out renewable energy. We need to deploy new technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture storage, and heat pumps, and bring down their costs. In sectors like aviation and shipping, we need to develop and commercialise technologies that are still in their research phase. And we need to do all of this while bringing the public with us and keeping the UK economy competitive.

We have a great prize within our grasp – a clean, reindustrialised Britain, and nature restored to our beautiful landscapes – but we should be clear that achieving it will be hard work.

XR is making that vision even harder to achieve by alienating the public. I fear they are coarsening and toxifying our public discourse on climate change, and fuelling the extremes. For the sake of the climate, I hope they change course.

Jude D’Alesio: The Budget must be centred on young people

30 Aug

Jude D’Alesio, aged 19, is one of the youngest school governors in Britain, and is a Law student at the University of Bristol.

When I listen to my grandparents complain relentlessly about the lockdown, I cannot help but feel slightly frustrated. Frustrated, because I have sacrificed a term at university to go into lockdown to save them from this virus!

The government’s imposition of a lockdown in the UK was aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, principally the elderly. There is no doubt that this was the correct decision, and Prof Neil Ferguson stated that lockdown should have been imposed earlier.

Over 95 per cent of coronavirus deaths have occurred in those older than 60, and 50 per cent of all deaths have occurred in those over 80 according to the WHO. It is only right, therefore, that we seek to protect the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society, from the disease, and the country is certainly united in this goal.

It is undeniable, however, that lockdown has taken a significant toll on the younger generation, of which I am a part. In higher education, lectures have gone digital, and some teaching missed altogether. This especially disadvantages final year students, many of whom will be embarking on their careers with significant gaps in their knowledge, particularly critical in professions like medicine.

There is also the immense damage caused to secondary and further education by the lockdown. At least a whole term of work missed will prove acute in those at crucial points in their education, namely GCSE’s and A levels.

Being robbed of the chance to outperform your predicted grades after months of hard work will deny many the chance to attend the best universities. This can only be negative, as we want our younger generations to receive the best education possible to enable them to pursue their ambitions.

Families with the lowest incomes will be hit hardest by the effects of distance learning; not being able to effectively participate in online classes due to a lack of technology will inevitably create skills gaps among the poorest in our society.

For all these reasons, the next Budget should be focused on, and most beneficial for, young people: their education, their skills, their opportunities.

In many ways, the pandemic has breathed fresh unity into our country as we are united in fighting the virus. It seems fair, therefore, that everyone should in some way bear the cost of the current recession. However, as the lockdown came at the cost of young people, there are undoubtedly changes benefiting young people which can be implemented in the next Budget.

Scrapping the triple lock is a great start. The triple lock, implemented by the Cameron government, increases pensions in accordance with the Retail Price Index, average earnings or 2.5per cent, whichever proves highest. This could enable savings of £8bn a year, according to a leaked Treasury document.

The current main rate of corporation tax, sitting at 19 per cent, has been stagnant since 2017. Such desperate times surely call for a cut in the rate, in line with the government’s aim to make us more competitive post-Brexit. Additionally, the government’s plan to merge the Foreign Office with DFID, whether the correct decision or not, will undoubtedly produce savings.

The proceeds of growth, merely the beginning of a range of reforms, should be reinvested heavily in young people’s education and opportunities to redress the balance caused by coronavirus. This must include the £1bn ‘catch-up’ plan to enable school children to bridge the gap left by lost teaching. However, amounting to only £80 per student (IFS), further funding once coronavirus passes should be on the cards.

This is, of course, only a starting point, and many more steps must be taken to alleviate the portentous educational, financial and social burdens which have overwhelmed my generation. But, there have been clear losers during this pandemic and the next Budget should recognise as such.

Henry Hill: SNP abandon ‘economic case for independence’ as GERS reveals that they don’t have one

27 Aug

Scottish Government abandons ‘economic case for independence’

Kate Forbes, the SNP Finance Secretary, has announced that the Scottish Government have abandoned plans to publish an annual ‘economic case for independence’, the Herald reports.

She claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic was the reason for abandoning the proposal (whilst of course insisting that it simultaneously demonstrated why Scotland should be independent).

However, it may also have something to do with the publication of the annual ‘Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland’ (GERS) figures, which show that the ‘Union dividend’ Scots enjoy from being part of the UK is now almost £2,000 per person. According to the report, £15.1 billion more spent on public services in Scotland than was raised in taxation – an increase of more than £2 billion on last year’s deficit, and one which adds up to 8.6 per cent of Scottish GDP.

This has led to warnings from economic experts that separation from the rest of the UK could (indeed, probably would) require a deep austerity programme to bring Scottish expenditure in line with revenues, especially in the event that the Nationalists tried to stick with Sterling and didn’t have recourse to their own central bank.

Unionists such as Jim Gallagher and Murdo Fraser have also not been shy about pointing out the difficulties this poses for the SNP:

“It is important to stress that the great bulk of the fiscal transfer is represented by higher per capita public spending in Scotland, not by lower tax revenues. So even if the Scottish economy performed in line with the UK average, and the tax take here was equivalent, there would still be a fiscal transfer required of over £1,600 for every person. This gives the lie to the Nationalist response to Gers, which is that, with independence, the Scottish economy could grow more rapidly”.

Yet the key question has to be: will this matter? To date the Scottish Government’s poll ratings – and as a result, signalled support for independence – appears almost entirely impervious to awkward questions about its actual performance.

Just this week Jeane Freeman, their Health Secretary, announced that she was going to stand down from Holyrood at next year’s election in the face of mounting pressure over claims that the Scottish Government pushed health boards to send elderly patients to care homes at the start of the pandemic. According to the Press & Journal: “The transfer of elderly, untested patients from hospital has been linked to the high number of Scottish care home deaths.”

Elsewhere we read about how Scottish ministers handed £30 million of public money to a ferry company on the brink of collapse, and that MSPs are having to fight to get hold of important documents related to the inquiry into the Alex Salmond scandal. Yet despite this, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP continue to poll well.

There are at least signs that the Unionists are starting to take the work of taking down the Nationalists more seriously. Douglas Ross, echoing Ruth Davidson, has now said that pro-UK campaigners made a mistake by demobilising in 2014, when they ought to have pressed their advantage. As a result, the separatists were given space to remobilise and (thanks to the cowardly and counter-productive Vow) seize control of the narrative once again. The Courier reports him as now promising “an unrelenting war on the SNP”.

Meanwhile Michael Gove, who is heading up the Government’s work on the Union, has started openly asking questions about things such as what the franchise should be in a hypothetical second referendum – much to the displeasure of the other side.

Op-eds:

  • The preservation of the Union must be a major priority of Government – Norman Tebbit, Conservative Progress
  • You can’t fight for the Union on the SNP’s terms – Stephen Daisley, Site
  • Welsh Conservatives should call ourselves Conservatives and Unionists on the ballot paper – Siôn Davies, Blue Beyond
  • Scottish Labour’s plight also hurts the cause of the Union – Sebastian Payne, FT

Alison Cork: Entrepreneurs can lead Britain’s recovery if we help them

23 Aug

Alison Cork is an entrepreneur, Ambassador to the British Library Business & IP Centres and founder of not for profit Make it Your Business

Faced with mounting job losses and economic stagnation, we are at a defining moment in our nation’s history.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I believe this is also a moment of opportunity, when Britain should become a nation that champions people to start a business. Entrepreneurs are the job creators of the future, and we are going to need them.

Whilst Covid has triggered the economic challenges which have resulted in job losses, people are now much more attuned to the idea of working independently. As family dynamics shift there will possibly be an increase in the number of women wanting to work.

Whole industries such as retail and hospitality are redefining how they operate. In many ways, Covid has created a perfect catalyst to encourage self-employment as a viable alternative for people who might otherwise have stuck with traditional employment or role models.

The challenge is how we normalise entrepreneurship. Historically we have tended to view my breed as outliers, and it is true that entrepreneurs are a bit different in the way we think, view risk and spot opportunities. What we need to do now is deliver the correct framework to support that mindset, and to understand what entrepreneurship really means.

So often we focus on the huge businesses, the ‘unicorns’ of our economy. But I’m talking about the ‘acorns’ of our economy, kitchen table businesses which may only generate modest sums, but which make a material difference to the economic independence and self-respect of that person or family unit. Businesses which mean those people are not dependent upon state intervention. Margaret Thatcher got it. The daughter of a grocer, she was the poster girl of self-determination, and inspired people like me to go out and give it a shot.

Encouragingly, our current government has already made a very important contribution to this initiative. In the pre-Covid budget there was a £13 million grant to continue to roll out the British Library Business & IP Centre Network. Originated in London, the BIPC is a business advice and information service which anyone can access free of charge. Spanning market intel reports, IP advice, workshops and even one-on-one mentoring, the BIPC has an impressive track record of success, with businesses that use the resource four times more likely to succeed than those which don’t. It also returns almost £7 into the economy for every £1 of public money spent on delivering the service.

The plan is to use central and local libraries to create a hub-and-spoke model of Business & IP centres around the UK. A brand of trust, an existing physical infrastructure, an important civic building often located on or near the high street and heart of the community, libraries are the perfect impartial and non-judgemental environment from which to support would-be entrepreneurs.

In terms of levelling up, library BIPC’s can reach the parts of the country that other initiatives have never been able to reach. They also have a strong track record in encouraging women and BAME-owned businesses, both currently under-represented. Between now and 2030, we estimate the BIPC service will help establish over 150,000 new businesses, contributing over £1 billion to the economy. That’s job creation.

But if we are truly to become a nation that embraces small business, we need to look further back in the entrepreneurial life cycle, to education. Starting a business and understanding the many skill sets needed to succeed in self-employment should be part of the school curriculum. Perhaps it should even be built into our apprenticeships programme? Moreover, the recent furore over A Level results could ultimately impact on how students view career options, leading to self-employment as a more normal choice for school leavers.

Which brings me back to Margaret Thatcher. There are, of course, pieces of the self-employed jigsaw missing, and funding is one of them. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about starting a business, personal financial risk is the factor most likely to deter someone from going it alone. So, we might do well to revisit a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by her in 1981.

In a nutshell, the EAS paid a sum of money monthly to anyone unemployed who wanted to start a business. You had to show some savings and a business plan, but there was no vetting of the idea itself, just a no-strings opportunity to try something out and create a job or jobs. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’,I hear you say. But research showed that it created 325,000 jobs and 18 months after signing up, 65 per cent of recipients were still in business, and 25 per cent of them were under 25. Perhaps the library business centres could also administer these grants.

In terms of business-friendly legislation, let’s also look at employment law, to facilitate hiring and firing without fear of unreasonable reprisal; maternity pay that doesn’t disadvantage the self-employed; legislation around business coaches and advice – currently not subject to regulation or insurance requirements – and greater rigour around collection of bad debts and dealing with fraud.

The good news is that we have a government taking steps to deliver on the levelling up promise of the election manifesto. The library Business Centre network is an important part of the delivery of that promise. What we need now is a comprehensive suite of services to be the foundation stone of a truly authentic entrepreneurial culture.

“Relight the economy, return to work and reopen schools”. The message from Sunak that the nation needed to hear.

13 Aug

Yesterday, incredibly troubling figures revealed the extent to which Coronavirus has damaged the UK economy. It has gone into a recession, having suffered its biggest slump on record between April and June. In that quarter, the economy shrank by 20.4 per cent compared with the first three months of the year.

The news, though drastic, should not have come as a huge surprise. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, there were stark warnings about the economic horrors being stored up – the job losses, the taxes to be paid and the impact on the young, many of whom had already borne the brunt of 2008’s financial crisis.

The trouble was that anyone who relayed concerns about the effects of the measures taken on the economy was liable to be accused of selfishness – “oh, you care about money not lives?”, was very much the verdict delivered on those who spoke out – with lockdown posed as the only moral choice. Overall there seemed to be a mindset of: “We’ll worry about the economy later”. Well, “later” is here.

How do the Conservatives react to the economic news? I rather think Sunak hit the right note when he announced his “three Rs” plan to The Sun. It stands for “relight economy, return to work and re-open schools”. After all, without a vaccine, and the recession here, what else is there to do?

My personal hunch – partly inspired by the large number of pageviews ConserativeHome gets for articles about Sweden – is that this is what the silent majority has been calling for. It wants the Government to be much bolder in speeding up the economic recovery.

Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme has been one welcome initiative. It was used more than 10.5 million times in its first week;. It is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way of helping get things back to some type of normality.

But it’s the public information campaigns that need a rethink, hence why this new one is needed (even if it might not be as catchy). The “stay at home” message was the right one to give in the dark days of the pandemic in this country. With infections, hospitalisations and deaths now all falling, almost the very opposite message, but one equally urgent, should be pressed home.

Some of the messaging needs to be especially targeted at younger generations, many of whom are still scared of this virus, despite themselves being at low risk. This became obvious to me when I went to my gym on Monday night. Even allowing for the steps taken to ensure social distancing, it was almost empty, with about five – at most – exercising.

Before the virus struck, it would have been packed with fit twenty and thirtysomethings, especially on that night. Based on that recent showing, the days of gyms are sadly numbered.

Regulations could be further eased. Some of the measures extended to bars – al fresco dining, for instance – have been great for business. But it has often been remarked that British nightlife is restricted, with closing times being much too early. On a recent trip to Soho I noticed everything closing up while the streets were still full of young people wanting to continue the night. It seemed a waste of economic opportunity.

Lastly, there’s the art sector. Sadler’s Well is one of the greatest venues for dance in the world. This week it sadly announced that around 26 per cent of its staff are facing redundancy. As my mother, a huge fan of Sadler’s Wells, pointed out – what will there be to return to if the pandemic has this effect on great theatres such as this one? Unfortunately the newspapers seem more intent on fearmongering about second waves rather than demanding to know why these venues in this country cannot now reopen as long as sensible precautions are taken.

In saying all this, I do not believe the Government acted incorrectly in March in imposing lockdown. It acted on the information available and the advice given to it. Lockdown seemed the right choice back then. But times and risks change. Granted the Government has eased lockdown, but it should now be even bolder in the steps it takes to get life back to normal, which is why it’s so refreshing to hear Sunak’s message.

However, the first test being the opening of schools. If we cannot resume things for children who are the least at any risk from this virus, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Now that people have the economic reality staring them in the face, they know there are tough choices to be made. And that doesn’t mean deciding whether to prioritise bars or schools in the reopening of the country; it means trying to get much more of society back out again, even if things cannot be risk free. After all, we cannot stay home forever.

Mo Metcalf-Fisher: “Pubs versus schools” doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario in reopening Britain

12 Aug

Mo Metcalf-Fisher is spokesman for the Countryside Alliance.

During lockdown, the closure of pubs was catastrophic for the countryside. Pubs form part of the backbone of rural communities up and down the land. They are not just places to see off a pint; they are public houses that provide a vital community space. They act as village hubs, often being one of the few places available for local people to meet, hold events and even operate as polling stations during elections.

When the go-ahead was given by the Government to reopen pubs from July 4, the nation collectively cheered. Meeting up with friends at my local on the first evening it reopened gave me immense joy. Seeing other families and friends enjoying themselves, laughing and exchanging stories all while putting money into the till of a local business was incredibly satisfying to see again. Despite this positive development, it seems pubs now face a further challenge to their long-term existence.

Throughout the Covid crisis, the Countryside Alliance has been keeping in regular contact with publicans across our extensive network of rural businesses. While most were incredibly grateful for the financial support and flexibility of the Government during the height of lockdown, many were incredibly eager to get going again, once restrictions were lifted.

Landlords and pub owners seldom have an easy day; working long hours and continuously coming up with innovative ways to drive up new business. Irrespective of vast complications caused by Covid, there are a multitude of pre-existing factors which make keeping pubs open a challenge. Supermarkets selling multi-buy offers which are not available to pubs, for example, make it much harder for pubs to compete. It’s no secret that the number of pubs has been decreasing steadily for several decades. According to the BBPA, from 2000 to 2018, pub numbers have declined by 22 per cent.

Then there has been an effort, by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, to push an unhelpful narrative that pubs should be the first establishments to close in order to prioritise keeping schools open. Her exact quote, was: “If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”

Now, no one is seriously doubting the importance of children going back to school, as quickly as possible. Seeing certain teachers unions’ attempting to sabotage plans to reopen schools and playing politics with our children’s future has infuriated me to my core. However, why is the not-so subtle dig over the prioritisation of reopening being landed at the door of our hardworking publicans?

The issue I take with her remark is that she has provided little clarity as to why there needs to be an exclusive choice between the two. The reason the closure of pubs captivated so many in the nation is because of their importance both as an economic contributor; providing huge levels of employment as well trade for an array of other connected businesses like breweries and wholesalers, as well as their huge societal contribution, at heart of so many local communities.

Pubs have already invested large sums into bringing their establishments up to the strict standards of health and safety expected of them. Plastic protective screens have been set up, PPE bought, hand sanitiser stations made available and track & trace systems implemented.

It is clear publicans understand their duty to their collective communities to provide a safe and secure social space. Many of the pubs we speak to have reported that as time has gone on, footfall has gradually increased. Staff have been taken off furlough and new personnel have been hired to meet the demand.

However, that same network of pubs in villages and small towns across Britain are virtually universal in their view that if a second lockdown were introduced, requiring them to shut shop again, they would have to close for good.

The choice facing local authorities should not simply be an either-or scenario. Without pubs, our economy will take an ever greater hit and the long-term damage it will cause across local communities will be irreversible.

We are officially in a recession now and it should go without saying that if we are to even attempt to pick up the pieces when this awful pandemic ends, we need to have a functioning economy. Sniping at pubs from the sidelines and pushing to halt a trade which employs hundreds of thousands of people, will cause untold devastation. Once leaving school, children will need jobs to go to. Unless we are out in our communities earning and spending money, their future remains bleak.

Pubs need and want to continue trading safely, especially as there is no guarantee of further financial support in the event of a further lockdown. Where Covid-related incidents have popped up at pubs, swift action has followed suit.

Take for example the Crown & Anchor in Avely, Essex. Within hours of being notified that a patron had been taken ill with suspected Covid symptoms, the pub immediately notified the community and shut shop. They carried out an extensive deep clean of the premises and remained shut for 72 hours. After following the relevant guidelines, they were able to reopen and continue trading. Going forward, it seems obvious that this remains the most effective way of dealing with Covid cases, from both an economic and health & safety perspective.

Covid has obviously created great anxiety for many people and time will only tell how long it will take for the vast majority of us to go back to leading an ordinary life. But it remains clear that there is not a bottomless pit of money for the government to prop up the economy for the long term. We need sensible, practical solutions for living day to day while the virus remains. We can’t continue living in fear and we must not allow businesses, like those remaining pubs, to fall by the wayside.

Alexandra Marsanu: Rather than being paralysed by the doom and gloom, we need to seize the new opportunities

7 Aug

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented health crisis will have a massive impact for the months and years to come. From heart-breaking loss of life to more than nine million workers on furlough to increasing waves of layoffs and business closures. The numbers show a grim story unfolding, and the economic one has only just begun.

That doesn’t mean however, that we should become completely paralysed by the doom and gloom. Yes, difficult times lie ahead. And yes, a pessimist or cautious take tends to catch the public mind much more easily than an enthusiastic, potentially reckless cheerleader. But as history has shown time and time again, you can always bet on Britain’s strength to survive and turn each challenge into an opportunity. And given the looming economic shifts, a re-think of how businesses are run and what skills are needed for the post-covid economy should start sooner rather than later.

The effects of covid-19 have certainly started laying out the breadcrumbs for the next waves of innovation. ‘Just-in-time’ production and global supply chains have proven vulnerable to disruption. Empty high-streets show an already struggling retail industry in need of massive transformation. Working from home has been more successful than expected as many office workers are reluctant to get back to the Pret sandwich diet or stand on a crowded tube.

A need for change on how we do things is slowly but surely emerging. Take manufacturing and supply chains. Could the flimsy global supply chains experienced in the past few months signify a need for bringing it back home? The shift to the services industry led to manufacturing accounting for just 8.7 per cent of economic output this year, down from 15 per cent in the 1990s. And given the allure of high-paying professional services or finance jobs, this is not surprising.

But as Elon Musk put it best “someone needs to do the real work”. If we don’t produce anything we don’t have anything and empty supermarket shelves and the PPE crisis back in March certainly proved that. A domestic production of basic necessities such as food, medicine and PPE, is not a bad thing to have in times of crisis. A need to speed up decarbonisation can be catalysed by investing in new technologies in such as energy storage, cheaper electric vehicles or small modular nuclear reactors. Automation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing can make advanced manufacturing attractive and help tackle the reshoring headwinds.

The success of remote working is another interesting trend to explore. Ghostly streets in Bank or Canary Wharf flag that Tramsport for London, lunch spots and office rents are in deep trouble. Without workers or tourists roaming the streets some may need to shut down for good. But while some ways of working may come back once a vaccine is ready, technology has proven that many don’t need to. Could this offer interesting opportunities in revitalising the dying high streets in small towns with the same fitness or eat-out facilities you may find in Central London? Or could this finally incentivise many more companies to not concentrate their offices in one location and move to a hub/co-working approach? A hybrid work from home model may be the future.

But given the uncertainty of the economic recovery, how can we know for sure what will change and what will stick? Nassim Taleb offers an intriguing thought in his book on the so-called black swan events:

“The reason free markets work is that they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error.”

And why not take this approach?

Your typical entrepreneur seems to use this best. A new idea is tried out. The mistakes are learnt from. It is adapted. That tends to lead to better results than massive costly projects. New policies could be tested through small experiments and local community feedback. As jobs become more dispersed, a small town could try out a restructuring of its high street to become a place for entertainment and public services. Local community feedback can easily be gathered. And if it works others will quickly adopt it.

Further Education colleges and work placements can be another quick way to try out a job change and re-skill for the new economy. Instead of having millions of people compete for jobs which may no longer exist, short online courses could be used to learn new things. Digital skills can be learned and tested over a matter of weeks. Or different career paths can be tested out through re-training and short placements for career changers similar to Sunak’s Kick Start Scheme aimed at 16-24-year-olds.

The uncertainty may look numbing, but opportunities will become apparent once the crisis settles and habits change. Now is the time to tinker as much as possible with new ideas. As researchers work day and night to find a vaccine and the furlough scheme puts the breaks on an economic crash, we need to make sure that we don’t emerge unprepared on the other side.

Ed McGuinness: Getting everyone back to work will save the economy

27 Jul

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Growth in GDP, from an economic perspective relies on three key areas. The first is labour; both population growth affecting its size and the participation rate. The latter of which will surely take a hit from this crisis. The second factor is capital investment in the economy and with the Government’s long-term investment plan this may very well be somewhat addressed. The third factor is known as Total Factor Productivity, productivity improvement or technological advancement. Normally in economics it is addressed residually (as capital and labour are fairly quantifiable), but generally, whilst we are holed up in our houses, especially the younger generations, the ability to be productive, to innovate as part of a social group, is limited. The bottom line is economic growth may jump around for a few months, but longer term will flat-line.

Boris Johnson’s rallying call of “build, build, build” follows well known and tried Keynesian economic principles, but putting aside that a British New Deal package comparable to that in the 1930s would actually cost north of  £700 billion, “shovel ready” infrastructure projects are rarely so in the United Kingdom. One can only look at the High Speed 2 rail link project which has been ongoing since 2009, the Heathrow expansion project, ongoing since the same year, and even the Channel Tunnel, arguably a huge success, took 18 years from agreement to completion. It would likely take a herculean effort, much like that seen in the early weeks of the Covid-19 response to expedite even the most minor infrastructure projects. Whilst this will be necessary for medium to longer term growth, a short-term booster shot is necessary to mitigate the risks of a permanently smaller economy.

Whilst the levelling-up agenda could perhaps see a step-change in the national economy, the wealth generating ability of London’s financial and multinational corporations is a capability that needs to be protected and nurtured if there is to be any economic recovery at all. London contributes between one quarter and one third of the entire economic output of the country, a population greater than the next 13 largest cities combined, and 11% of the UK’s tax revenue – a considerable and much needed source of cash as we emerge from this crisis. We have already seen some positive news with regards to the future of financial services in the post Brexit City which offers some security, but to get London’s economy firing again, benefitting not just the South East but the rest of the country. We must either adapt very quickly or risk a lasting hit to one of the world’s global economic command centres.

To do this people must get back to work – a simple aim, but complex in execution. The challenges are overarching twofold. First psychological and personal, people are genuinely concerned that they might get ill and naturally do not want to travel in close proximity (as is almost inevitable) in London and other city transport networks. The second, whilst fed and influenced by the first is separate, and is practical and organisational. In order to comply with new social distancing office space and transport has had to readapt to the point where it is impossible at the moment to have 100% capacity. Some offices in Canary Wharf have indicated a 50% capacity cap on open plan offices which seen have seen desks normally fit for six now only fit for one or two.  We must address both these issues when it comes to returning to work. By addressing the latter, a proof of concept is deliverable which will go a long way to alleviating the former, psychological concerns.

It is clear that accepting the current situation as the ‘new normal’ is not a solution. It would see not only resilient industries face collapse, but also highly operationally levered sectors like hospitality; fast food and tourism fall away alongside second order effects of rental and credit defaults. Therefore, the risks must be managed and mitigated. Practically those travelling should be encouraged to wear facemasks, wash their hands and observe social distancing, but we must change our working habits fundamentally, in the short term if we are to succeed.

Younger workers should be encouraged to return to the office more quickly than the manager class. The damage to younger people’s careers from Covid-19 has been highlighted in the potential loss of hospitality, retail and other feeder professions, but younger people who work in an office environment need social interaction and personal networking with colleagues, which is of huge importance to younger staff. Development through social interaction is not just a theory isolated to infants, but extends throughout all growth phases of life. Not only that, but younger people are generally less well paid and as such live in accommodation ill equipped for a healthy working environment lacking the space for a home office or a separate room for working. The active psychological damage of an absence of delineation between work and personal life, alongside the passive damage caused by separation from peers, will have a damaging effect on younger people if they do not return to work imminently.

There also needs to be a reform of the working day. If, as it is at the moment a 9-to-5 day, it is natural that rush hour falls either side of these, considerably so in London and other cities where commuter towns exacerbate the effect. London transport should run a rush hour service, therefore increasing capacity across the system, throughout the day, Companies, particularly those who work in close proximity to one another and are served by a limited number of transport links, for example in Canary Wharf, should collaborate to reassign their working day and stagger start and stop times and more importantly enforce them. An additional point of assistance would be to alter market opening hours from 9.30-4.30 as advocated by the Association for Financial Markets in Europe and the Investment Association, but not accepted by the LSE in the most recent review. This would lose the overlap with Asia, which is arguably not statistically significant, but would retain the lucrative overlap with US market whilst allowing more time, particularly in the morning, for commuter travel.

The Government must remember the importance of London and other cities’ regional influence on productivity – a problem in the UK even before Covid-19 – without which the entire country could level-down. By focussing on only the short-term operational aspect, large office-based London businesses may see a slight recovery, but support industries around them may collapse which will lead to longer term pain. On this occasion, working together to protect the centre is protecting the rest.

Damian Green: Here are our One Nation ideas for reviving post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain

27 Jul

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

There has been a flurry of comments about One Nation Conservatism, and what it means in the 2020s, over recent weeks. This is very timely, as for many years the One Nation tradition was linked with pro-European views, to the point where views on Europe seemed to become its defining characteristic.

Those times are clearly past, and one of the aims of the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is to set out a new set of policy priorities, both in domestic and international policy, which we want the Government to adopt. We hope that we are pushing at a reasonably open door, as the Prime Minister has always described himself as a One Nation politician, and certainly his levelling up agenda is absolutely in that tradition. His description of himself as a “Brexity Hezza” may have been rejected by, well…..Hezza, but nothing is easy these days.

Getting the country back on the track it voted for last December is the task for the next four years, and One Nation ideas will play a central role in the successful pursuit of that project. The last thing the Conservative Party or the country needs is a continuation of the Brexit divisions. If the only thing that matters is how you voted in 2016, we will never move on. So through the summer and autumn the One Nation Caucus will be publishing a series of policy papers designed to set out a full agenda for government in the post-Covid period.

The first of these papers is Restarting the Economy, which brings together six MPs from various intakes to address the central issue of our times. Stephen Hammond is the lead author, and he emphasises the importance of a relentless focus on levelling up to extend growth beyond London.

Key proposals in the paper include the development of new local economic bodies to drive growth, expanding the number of planned freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including suggestions for ending consumer rip-offs, and proposals for managing repayments of Covid business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

Each of these is a meaty idea in its own right, and the full paper is available on the One Nation website. But this array of economic ideas is only the start of the wider project to position Conservative ideas at the heart of the national political debate post-Covid.

Labour may be under new management but one of the features of the Starmer era so far has been the avoidance of any policy discussions. This is clearly a conscious tactic, but while Labour pursues it there is a space to fill in shaping the public mind. It is often observed that intellectual regeneration is more difficult inside a governing party, but it is not impossible, and is absolutely necessary if conservatism is to have another successful decade.

The financial crisis, Brexit, and Covid-19 have been three black swans that have swept aside the original plans developed the last time the Conservative Party was in opposition. They have incidentally also swept aside Tony Blair’s fond idea of making the twenty-first century “the progressive century”, by which he meant the New Labour century. How does that look in 2020?

So now is exactly the right time for One Nation Conservatives to think hard and set up debates. After the economic paper our next publication will be on social mobility, how we can bring it back, and why we must not think about it in traditional terms. Following that we will be publishing a paper on the environment, showing how capitalism is not the enemy of achieving carbon New Zero, but the only way of reaching it.

Future papers will look at Britain’s place in the world, covering trade and aid, and specifically what the new configuration of the Foreign Office and DfId offers in the realm of making our aid spending (which One Nation Conservatives strongly support) more effective in the future. We will also be taking a hard look at schools and what they can do better to spread opportunity, and at the new world of work.

It is very pleasing that all cohorts of the Parliamentary party have contributed to these papers. Former Ministers have worked with many members of the 2019 intake on the individual ideas, proving that there is no shortage of new thinking on the back benches, and that One Nation ideas are alive and well in the rising generations within the party.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a One Nation Conservative, I hope you will welcome the fact that those of us who are in that tradition want to contribute publicly to the key debates that will dominate the coming decade. The public will of course judge the Government mainly on its actions. But every political party needs to demonstrate that it can apply its principles to new circumstances. In a world that changes as fast as this one constant intellectual regeneration should be our goal. The One Nation recovery papers are a contribution to that.