David Gauke: Johnson’s Covid policy – and why it’s opening up a rift between him and his traditional Tory supporters

26 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at last year’s general election.

For an amendment of no legal force that may not even be called, Graham Brady’s proposal that there should approve in advance any Covid-19 restrictions is of real significance.

On the face of it, it is an amendment that is more about process than substance – the extent to which Parliament, rather than just the executive, has a say on future restrictions. But in reality, it also exposes the divide between the position of the Government – and the Prime Minister in particular – and many of his Parliamentary colleagues on how far we should go in attempting to stop the spread of the virus. For the first time in many years, Boris Johnson’s position puts him at odds with the instincts of many on the right of the Conservative Party. What is more, his position appears to put him at odds with his own instincts.

The Coronavirus crisis has been immensely difficult for the Prime Minister. In part, that has been due to his own ill-health that took him out of action at the peak of the virus, and from which he has made a slow and painful recovery (although, from what I hear, he is now physically in good shape).

t has also been a crisis that has exposed his longstanding inability to grasp detail. A Prime Minister was needed to get Whitehall focused on the virus in February, identify and prioritise testing and tracing and spot that the Department for Education was heading for a fall with its approach to exam results. On all these issues, he appears to have been absent.

However, I suspect that the most challenging aspect of recent months for Johnson is that he has felt compelled to do things that alien to his normal approach to life. By restricting the freedoms of his fellow citizens, he is not acting like the great admirer of Mayor of Amity Island, the foe of the doomsters and gloomsters, the critic of pettifogging bureaucrats, the ‘freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character’ for whom Toby Young – and many others – voted.

Why has this happened? His own experience of the virus may be a factor, but one can only conclude that he has been convinced that there is a real risk that, without further action, the virus will spread more widely – including to the vulnerable, and that this will result in very large numbers of deaths. Given the widely-held view that we locked down too late in March, this would not just be a health disaster but a political one as well.

His libertarian critics argue that these measures are panicked and unnecessary. There is anger over the projections of a weekly doubling of cases (a much worse trajectory than France and Spain have followed). Some point to Sweden or Brazil – countries that have been hit hard, but now have falling or stable levels of infection – to argue that herd immunity comes quicker than we previously thought, perhaps because of T cell immunity.

Maybe these critics are right; I certainly hope that they are. There are reputable scientists who are making the case, and we all want to believe those that are telling us that it is all going to be alright. But there are also reputable scientists who are making the opposite case, who are arguing that we should be tightening up further and faster (a view, incidentally, that has a lot of public support).

This is where the job of Prime Minister is a difficult and lonely one. I think we all know where Johnson would stand on this issue if he were still a Daily Telegraph columnist. We can also take a good guess as to his approach if someone else was Prime Minister, and he was an ambitious backbencher with a desire to free the ball from the back of the scrum.

But he is not a columnist nor a backbencher but the person who has t person who has to make the decision. And unlike some decisions that a Prime Minister might make, if he gets it wrong the consequences will be both enormous and very quickly apparent to all.

So when faced with advice that the virus was now spreading strongly and that, without intervention, deaths would soon rise substantially, Johnson acted in much the same way as any recent Prime Minister would have done. Maybe his libertarian instincts softened some of the new restrictions, but essentially he has made a decision to be risk averse; to be conventional.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that he has reached that conclusion. But it has also been obvious that this sits uneasily with him. He does not like restricting people’s liberties (not a bad quality, by and large) and he likes to tell people good news. He has promised we would have this licked by July and then by Christmas. He has urged us back to our offices when it was predictable (indeed, predicted  that he would soon have to reverse that advice. Even on Tuesday, he seemed to consider it a matter of national pride that we, as a great freedom-loving people, have not been following the rules. The old Johnsom instinct is hard to suppress.

The consequence of this internal conflict is inconsistency and muddled messages. His natural supporters – those who value freedom and independence from the State and are most sceptical about the advice of experts – are in revolt. This has manifested itself in signatures for the Brady amendment. There are signatories from across the Conservative Party spectrum, but they notably include big Brexiteer beasts such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and Bernard Jenkin. These could be dangerous opponents.

Of course, Covid is not the only issue where the Prime Minister is going to have to make a big choice in the next few weeks. Does he make the necessary concessions in order to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period? Yesterday, James Forsyth suggested that a deal was close and that the UK might take a more flexible approach to the negotiations, choosing to fight some battles in the future (‘you have to make it through the short term to get to the long term’ says James, using language that will sound very familiar to anyone who served in Cabinet with Michael Gove in 2018-19).

The piece suggests that the Prime Minister is ‘totally focused on Covid’. But he will soon have to make a choice. On the one hand, he will be receiving advice from officials that the adverse consequences of No Deal are very significant, especially for a fragile economy. On the other hand, his instincts presumably tell him that this is all over-stated gloomsterism.

The Prime Minister knows that the instinct to take a risk, to chance it, to tell the experts to go to hell, is very strong both within himself and amongst many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is already defying those instincts on one issue. If he is to take the necessary steps to get a Brexit deal (and I hope he does), he is going to have to defy those instincts on a second issue, too. Given that he is already in danger of losing his hold over his traditional allies, it is not obvious that he will.

Raghib Ali: Covid-19. The pluses and minuses of the Government’s new plan – and why there should be no more lockdowns.

25 Sep

Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. He writes in a personal capacity.

Last week, I explained on this site why there is still significant potential for harm from a second wave – both directly from Covid-19, and indirectly from its effect on the NHS’ ability to keep all essential services running.

Today, I will try to address the key question as to what our response should be. The situation now is almost the exact inverse of the one I discussed in June in relation to lifting lockdown restrictions. The divisions remain, and the public health messaging still needs to improve but there is now wider acknowledgement of the need to balance the harms of Covid-19 with those of lockdown.

I wish I had the same confidence as the armchair epidemiologists about the best course of action, but the truth is that although we do now have actual experience of dealing with first waves (as opposed to just modelling), ‘the science’ is still highly uncertain, with conflicting evidence for the effectiveness of different strategies (mitigation vs. suppression) in different countries.

I have set out in more detail on my blog why it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions but, in brief, the evidence we have is generally from low quality observational data which have significant limitations – and so we don’t know for certain if the reduction in disease was due to the intervention or other factors.

Also, many interventions were instituted simultaneously and so we don’t know which had the biggest effect in reducing infection. However, it is clear that the measures taken pre-lockdown (self-isolation and social distancing) did reduce infections and must remain the cornerstone of our response.

Between-country comparisons are particularly problematic as countries differ in so many important ways but I will briefly discuss the experience of Sweden as its approach has attracted so much attention (and supporters and detractors). Compared to its nearest neighbours, it has (so far) had a five to ten times higher death rate with a similar economic decline. This supports the case that those countries that locked down earlier had less deaths from Coronavirus (because they had less cases) – as would be expected given the virus needs human interaction to spread.

However, when compared to the UK, Belgium or France, Sweden has a similar level of deaths with a much better economic performance and has demonstrated that first waves can be ended with measures short of a full lockdown (including, crucially, keeping schools open).

But it is too early to say that Sweden has escaped a second wave as they generally occur about three months after the end of the first and Sweden’s only ended in July. However, I think it is unlikely as they have not reached the 20 per cent antibody level which may provide herd immunity (they are at about seven per cent.)

Also, in general, lockdowns postpone rather than prevent infection (although the death rate should be lower in second waves, due to better treatments) and Israel provides an example of their limitations where they now have a much larger second wave of deaths which has led to a second lockdown. And this cycle of lockdowns would need to be repeated until vaccines / very effective treatments become available – of which there is no guarantee.

Of the large European countries, Germany has (so far) managed the Coronavirus most effectively, with lower deaths in the first wave (and less economic damage) and no second wave yet – which seems to be due to better testing and tracing, and shielding of those at highest risk.

However, it is still too early to say which countries’ strategies are correct, and we won’t know until the end of the pandemic. But, of course, we have to make decisions now based on the best evidence we have.

Although I don’t agree with all the measures, I think the approach outlined by the Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer – which can be seen as a hybrid mitigation / suppression strategy – is broadly correct ,and rightly focuses on the balance of benefits and harms in order to produce the best overall outcome.

And although there is now broad agreement that we must try to prevent a second national lockdown, there is already pressure to increase the restrictions further.

But before doing this, I would urge the Government and Parliament to ask these three questions:

  • First, how good is the evidence that the intervention works in reducing Covid-19?

We have a much better evidence base now, with the different interventions used over the summer and some data from the ‘natural experiments’ being conducted as devolved nations introduced slightly different measures (e.g. on the rule of 6, size of bubbles, household mixing, etc.)

Measures should also be in place for at least two weeks to assess effectiveness before considering new ones; but should also be reviewed regularly, and not kept any longer than necessary. (The Government should also urgently fund trials to test different interventions in different regions to get better evidence.)

  • Second, is it clear that making these restrictions mandatory (with penalties) makes a significant difference to compliance/ effectiveness of these measures?

In some cases, this is clear (e.g: breaking self-isolation rules where the voluntary system was not working well) but, in general, the harms of (particularly social) restrictions could be reduced by making them voluntary.

  • Third, and most importantly, does it clearly have more benefit than harm in relation to overall health, quality of life, education and jobs?

It is hard to see how a second national lockdown could be justified, even on health grounds, with the Government’s  own health cost-benefit analysis  showing that, in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths. (Importantly, this analysis was on the basis that mitigations to reduce Coronavirus infections (e.g. social distancing) were in place – otherwise the harm from Covid-19 deaths was more than three times greater than lockdown.)

Other analyses have also come to the same conclusion – particularly when also considering the economic costs of lockdown – which also harms health and society.

The evidence for the effectiveness of local lockdowns is mixed, but they will still have associated harms – and will exacerbate inequalities and so similar comprehensive, cost-benefit analyses are needed – with the input of economists and educationalists as well.

New lockdowns should only be considered when there is clear evidence of more benefit than harm, and closing schools must be the last resort.

We need to prioritise those interventions that most reduce the direct and indirect harms from Covid-19 (which will therefore decrease the need for more restrictions) while doing the least harm to everything else – particularly other health harms, education, and the economy.

Based on our experience, these are three interventions which could save thousands of lives this time:

  • First, improving the public health messaging and reducing fear. Thousands died and suffered at home either because they thought they needed to ‘stay at home’ to ‘protect the NHS’ even when they were seriously ill – or they were too scared to come to hospital. We need to reassure the sick and ideally provide separate Covid-19 units/ hospitals to give them more confidence to attend – which also means keeping Covid-19 hospitalisations at a low enough level to enable this.
  • Second, ensuring that all NHS services are kept running. while also managing Covid-19. Millions have suffered, and thousands will die, through the closure of NHS services – which we now know was not necessary and mustn’t happen again. We must urgently establish the level at which Covid-19 admissions will overwhelm the NHS – not in the sense that we used before (i.e. emergency and critical care) – which is no longer a risk – but all other essential services as well. And this time, we must use the increased capacity available from the Nightingales and private hospitals.
  • Third, protecting those at highest risk including care home residents and hospital patients with regular testing & isolation, and ‘smarter shielding.’  This can be much better targeted now with all the data we have and individual ‘Covid-19 risk calculators’ should be urgently rolled-out to help people understand their own risk and make their own informed decisions. It will also help people to overcome their fears and seek medical help when required, as well as help to reduce Covid-19 disparities.

I do not, however, believe this shielding should replace the other measures to suppress the virus in the general population. There is currently not enough evidence to show that it is possible to effectively shield all those at high risk or to reach herd immunity without significant direct harm to the lower risk groups where adverse health effects occur in about a third of cases, including the young and those with mild symptoms.

(Of course, test and trace is also critical – and there is certainly room for improvement, particularly in schools, but the UK does have one of the highest testing rates in Europe.)

The public have the most important role of all in controlling the virus, and so must be convinced to follow the current restrictions and given support, as needed, to do so. To improve public consent and compliance, the Government should publish and explain the evidence – and be honest about the decision-making process, the uncertainties and the trade-offs.

The coming months will be challenging for all of us, and we will need to learn to live with the virus and change our behaviour accordingly. For some, that will mean reducing our social contacts; for others – overcoming our fears; and for all, looking out for the vulnerable, being patient and making sacrifices for the common good.

Finally, having served on the front-line, I am only too aware of the death and suffering that Covid-19 causes – but the harms of a second lockdown would be greater. And so we must follow the current measures and by protecting society, education and the economy – as well as the NHS – we will save, and improve, the most lives.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

Dying by numbers

24 Sep

Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”.  Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.

One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent.  But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by.  Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.

The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all.  However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.

As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing.  But successful testing will inevitably be go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action.  And the scale, duration and sweep of all anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.

These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad.  The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August.  The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.

Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.

Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20.  Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.

But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened.  Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”.  Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.

Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37.  Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero.  Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month.  Or point out that it could be higher.

Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths.  But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change.  Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.

Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain.  (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)

If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day.  If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.

That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.

Ali says that “deaths should also be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load  due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”

Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.

As youth unemployment grows, can Sunak come to the rescue (again)?

15 Sep

Another day, another onslaught of depressing news for the UK – this time around the unemployment rate. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the rate has grown to 4.1 per cent in the three months to July compared to 3.9 per cent before

While some analysts have pointed out that this is low by historic and international standards, Rishi Sunak will no doubt be having sleepless nights wondering what happens when the Government’s furlough scheme comes to a close; how much worse will the current figures get?

Moreover, Conservatives as a whole need to think critically about how to help young people, who have been worst affected by the economic turmoil. The ONS data showed that people aged 16 to 24 suffered the biggest drop in employment, a trend that has been consistent throughout this crisis, and others; in 2008, it was today’s millennials taking the brunt – hence why the “youth vote” has been so low (and will become more of an election stumbling block for the Tories as this demographic heads towards the 40s and 50s age bracket without home ownership, and the rest).

So what does Sunak do about all this? (Incidentally, he has not stipulated his next budget date, with rumours it could be in January). The first thing to say is that he has already released some enormous measures to support young people. These include a £2 billion “Kickstart Scheme”, whereby the government will pay for employers “to create new 6-month job placements for young people who are currently on Universal Credit” – in the hope that this can create hundreds thousands of new jobs.

The Government is also giving businesses £2,000 for each new apprentice hired under the age of 25, a £111 million investment to triple traineeships in 2020-21 and £17 million funding for sector-based work academy placements, among other measures. 

These are all steps in the right direction; for years it has been said that the UK is too focused on university degrees, while the economy demands more technical/ practical skills. The tech sector, particularly, is growing and needs young people to fill the gap. Perhaps it is the case that Sunak will expand these sorts of training schemes even further.

What many want to know is whether the Chancellor will extend furloughing, but he has repeatedly ruled this out, saying: “Indefinitely keeping people out of work is not the answer.” Given that the scheme has already cost the taxpayer an estimated £60 billion, one suspects many quietly want it to come to an end. Besides, it’ll be young people picking up the eventual bill – however much of a support it appears right now.

While ruling out further furloughing, Sunak did promise, however, that “we will be creative in order to find ways of effectively helping people.” He has certainly proven himself to be imaginative, winning hearts and stomachs with the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, so the question is what this next phase of creativity could look like.

One suggestion that has been made for the UK is that it adopts a model similar to that in Germany, to stave off huge job losses. Germany uses something called the Kurzarbeit job subsidy, which the country has had since the early 20th century, and is estimated to have saved around half a million jobs in the financial crisis. 

Whereas the UK’s furloughing scheme meant businesses asked their employees to stay home for months on end, Kurzarbeit invited them back to work – albeit on reduced hours. Using the scheme, German businesses can take employees on for the time they need, and the government then pays workers a percentage (around 60 to 80 per cent) of any lost hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility – as it allows companies to respond to fluctuations in their business; they can reduce workers’ hours if they have a loss of trade, for instance, and up again for vice versa. It is also far less expensive than furlough, costing around 33.5 billion so far – with plans for it to be extended until the end of 2021.

France, too, has something similar to the German system, called “partial unemployment” or “partial activity”. Using this scheme, businesses can cut their employees’ hours by up to 40 per cent for up to three years, but they will still receive nearly all of their standard salary – which the government pays a percentage of.

While Sunak has offered a “jobs retention bonus” to get employers to bring staff back from furlough – whereby they received £1,000 for every staff member retained – it may be the case that the flexibility afforded by the German and French systems is what can help businesses feel more confident about hiring again.

There will be other radical proposals put forward as to how to tackle the issue, focussing on how to further incentivise employers to take on the young, whether that’s targetted changes to their National Insurance contributions, or something more inventive.

Another thing to add is that non-employment related measures can greatly help young people feel more secure in their lives. Things as basic as reducing council tax or travel would certainly improve matters for a generation of renters.

And lastly I would write that much of helping young people cannot be done with a budget. It ultimately relies on the Government – and society – realising that repeatedly opening and closing the economy means that this demographic will take the brunt; it requires us to have more difficult conversations about what price we will pay for knee-jerk responses to rising cases. As today’s data shows, the economic consequences are harsh indeed.

Belgium hasn’t “flattened the curve” – and should not be used to justify UK curfews

11 Sep

During the Government’s press conference on Wednesday, Chris Whitty explained that the latest lockdown rules, which mean it’s now illegal for over six people to socialise indoors or outdoors from Monday, had been inspired by Belgium.

On July 29, the country introduced similar guidelines, reducing the number of people who are allowed to socialise together from 15 to five, as well as enforcing a 10pm national curfew (which, depressingly, has been applied to bars and restaurants in Bolton – and could be extended to other parts of the UK).

Speaking about Belgium, Whitty said it had been a “clear indication that if you act rapidly and decisively when these changes (rises in cases) are happening, there is a reasonable or good chance of bringing the rates back down under control”.

Newspapers were quick to praise the country. The Daily Mail suggested that it had been “able to curtail a second wave of coronavirus”, and The Evening Standard even referred to Belgium as a “success“.

On the other hand, Spain and France, which have both seen cases rise rapidly, have been portrayed unfavourably. In the press conference, Whitty used this dramatic graph (below) to highlight their situation.

The conclusion is clear: the UK now needs to “act decisively” – aka apply similar measures to Belgium’s – to save it from a similar fate.

Matt Hancock, too, echoed Whitty’s sentiments. “If you look at what’s happened in Belgium, they saw an increase and then they’ve brought it down, whereas in France and Spain that just hasn’t happened”, he said.

Yet, in the last few days the idea that Belgium is a “success” look rather dubious (to say the least).

Indeed, as The Brussels Times points out, the country has recorded a rapid rise in the number of new Coronavirus infections. According to the latest figures by Sciensano (the Belgian institute for health), an average of 547.4 people per day tested positive for Covid-19 in the country during the last week, with new infections per day rising by 22 per cent over the seven-day period (from September 1 to 7).

It’s the sixth day in the row that the average number of new confirmed Covid-19 infections in Belgium has risen again.

Furthermore, while the Government’s graph was plotted from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, others look less flattering. Take the site Worldometer, as an alternative source, which released these yesterday:

Although it’s worth pointing out that Belgium did experience a slight dip in the number of new infections in August, the trend clearly hasn’t been sustained as people return to work and school. And on a more contentious note, it’s not obvious whether the dip was due to the interventions (limiting parties to five and curfews) or something else. There is still much that we do not know about the virus, and why it moves through countries at different rates.

Another question to ask is what hospitalisations look like in all this; from September 4 to 10, there has been an average of 22 new hospital admissions per day in Belgium – an increase on the previous week (15.7). Compared to cases, these figures are relatively low, and another reminder that scientists still don’t understand how cases translate to hospitalisations and deaths (partly because no one knows what cases were at the beginning of the outbreak).

Already there’s been talk of whether Britain could copy Belgium more in its approach, with a troubling YouGov poll showing that 62 per cent of the public would support a 10pm to 5am curfew.

But any moves must be made on more clear-cut data. By all indications, the latest figures are not that.

Channel crossings are undermining the Government’s narrative about ‘taking back control’ of immigration

4 Sep

When Vote Leave promised to ‘take back control’, one of the issues at the top of the list was immigration. Leaving the EU meant ending freedom of movement and gaining the freedom to implement a points-based system which better reflected Britain’s national priorities.

This did not necessarily mean a draconian system – evidence suggested voters’ attitudes towards immigration actually got more liberal after the referendum – but that would be up to Parliament.

Yet only months after the electoral triumph of what has been called a ‘Vote Leave’ government, this narrative of control is being undermined by the toxic drip-feed of stories about migrant boats crossing the Channel.

Priti Patel clearly grasps that this is a problem, which is why we’re getting tough-sounding stories about calls to institute Royal Navy patrols and thwarting bids by ‘activist lawyers’ to prevent deportations. This morning she hit out at social media companies for allegedly failing to take action against people smugglers publicising their businesses online.

But it is less obvious what can actually be done. Patrolling the Channel invites the same problem as we see in the Mediterranean, wherein refugees located by the Italian Navy often put themselves into the water knowing the Italians won’t leave them there. Likewise footage of dingies arriving on the beach and their occupants disappearing inland may spark outrage, but the Home Office can’t really prevent that without erecting some sort of Atlantic Wall on the Kent coast.

Theresa May’s strategy was a more ‘defence in depth’ approach, with the Home Office drafting landlords and employers to help locate illegal entrants once they were in the UK – the ‘hostile environment’. The problem with this, setting aside the political challenges posed by the fallout from Windrush, is that without an effective detention and deportation system it risks just forcing people into the black economy.

This is all without getting into the possible difficulties posed by the above-mentioned ‘activist lawyers’, the courts, our membership of the ECHR, and so on, which Natalie Elphicke MP touched on in her article on the subject.

Usually Australia, which has been running ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ since 2013, is held up as the example to follow. But it enjoys some advantages Britain does not: it is outside some of the aforementioned legal structures; would-be ‘boat people’ face a much longer journey; and it has in Nauru a very handy offshore detention option unavailable to the Home Office (unless Sealand were interested).

Some of these problems are soluble. It should be fairly straightforward to legislate on the issue of traffickers exploiting social media, and Tim Loughton’s suggestion of using cruise ships as offshore detention facilities could be very timely given that the industry is facing a billion-dollar question about what to do with its mothballed vessels. Smoothing the legal pathway to deportation could also be including in whatever replaces the Government’s now-abandoned Constitution, Democracy, and Human Rights Commission.

But ultimately the Home Secretary is in a difficult position because the real keys to a lasting solution – new agreements with France and the other countries to which illegal entrants ultimately need to be deported – are not her department. But managing the day-to-day fallout is.

Unconscious bias training. What’s the point of having a huge majority if Tories can’t say no to it?

2 Sep

On Monday, The Times revealed news that won’t exactly delight Conservatives. Having voted for Boris Johnson under the assumption that his party would stand up to cancel culture, wokeness and all things far-Left, they will be astounded to know that the House of Commons is reportedly piloting “unconscious bias training” for MPs.

Though this training has been offered to Commons staff since 2016, it is the first time it has been extended in such a manner. The move has come about partly as a result of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as well as the experiences of parliamentary staff. According to research by Parlireach, employees from ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to be challenged to show their security passes, among other discriminatory incidents.

While these injustices must, of course, be fixed, it is the “unconscious bias training” solution that a lot of the electorate will take issue with. Numerous articles have been written about how pseudoscientific the method is. But the worst bit is the basic premise; it assumes that racism and other prejudices sit deep within people’s minds, and need to be exorcised with the help of an educator.

Are we okay with our MPs undertaking this? What does this say if they are happy to go along with it? Personally I think unconscious bias training is prejudiced in itself (“white people have the same bad thoughts”), oxymoronic (how can you train the unconscious?), and ultimately sounds like something out of Salem (“let’s get the devil out of you!”). Yet the industry is now worth $8 billion.

Sadly, the emergence of unconscious bias training is not an isolated phenomenon; it fits into a wider trend that is troubling the silent majority, who will see this latest development as yet another example of Conservatives/ the mainstream, even, losing the culture war. Yes, the Tories repeatedly win elections, but Britain remains plagued by woke ideology, which seems to grow in prevalence each day.

The most recent example of this came from a somewhat predictable place – the BBC, which decided to scrap the words from Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! in favour of orchestral music after the lyrics were deemed problematic. It has since u-turned on this decision, but only after a great amount of backlash. You almost had to pinch yourself that we reached that situation, and that the change of heart was some sort of victory.

As if that wasn’t barmy enough, the British Library (BL) is also going through a woke revolution. A number of people, including – worryingly – its chief librarian, have decided that this institution needs a “major cultural change”. Reforms have been proposed by a “Decolonising Working Group”, which says that the BL building is an “imperialism symbol” because it resembles a battleship. 

Who knows what’s next… Will activists “dismantle” the BL in the same way they want to “dismantle” patriarchy and other vague sociological constructs? Not to give any ideas, but perhaps the scene of it coming down might finally make politicians wake up and realise how serious the threat they are facing is. Woke ideology has been accelerated through lockdown, and it is not going away.

One is not naive, incidentally, about injustices in the world. It is far from perfect, and the battles for racial and gender equality, among others, are not won yet. It would be foolish to dismiss these, and pretend that things are fine. Clearly they aren’t.

But we have reached a state in which intolerance masquerading as tolerance has become increasingly dangerous. We live in a society where students and professors are afraid at universities because of having right-leaning political views; where people can’t get work in the arts for the same reason, and where Netflix shows as innocuous as The Mighty Boosh are eradicated because someone’s now suddenly offended.

The standards of morality seem to shift all the time; for activists, nothing is ever enough as they look for 2020’s blasphemers. Sometimes they claim that cancel culture is exaggerated, or a myth, but only because they are doing the cancelling – and never on the receiving end.

In all this, many voters are asking themselves one question, and that is: where are the Conservatives? Busy, of course, with the pandemic, but more than ever the electorate is needing reassurances that they’re safe; not next to be cancelled.

Ministers have made small steps towards sticking up for not so much ‘conservative’, but mainstream values. Gavin Williamson, for instance, has encouraged universities to defend free speech through financial incentives, and the BBC has its new Director General who wants more plurality of opinion

And yet, the recent scenes of statue toppling have not exactly inspired confidence. MPs were too quiet on the matter, perhaps scared of putting a foot wrong. They should have taken some lessons from Emmanuel Macron, who took charge when France experienced BLM protests, making a televised address that struck an important balance.

There, he acknowledged that someone’s “address, name, colour of skin” can reduce their chances of success in French society and promised to be “uncompromising in the face of racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination”. At the same time, he said the fight against racism had been distorted when it became exploited by “separatists”, and that “the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history.”

The Prime Minister has spoken out against woke ideology – last week he said of the BBC Proms’ decision that Britain must stop “this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness” – but I can’t help feeling it lacked the command of Macron’s address.

Where do ministers begin at fighting back? Perhaps it is Michael Gove, Chancellor Duchy of Lancaster, who will have to lead this charge. He has already criticised “group think” in the civil service, warning that a “metropolitan” outlook of decision-makers had led to a government that was “estranged” from the people.

Or it might be that Dominic Cummings – ever in touch with public opinion – who will make a difference as he reforms the civil service, as with Munira Mirza, Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, who has written for distinctly “unwoke” publications, such as spiked. 

It may also be the case that MPs like Joy Morrissey, who has stood up for free speech, Ben Bradley, who has fought back in the culture wars, and Neil O’Brien, who has also done this – recently criticising unconscious bias training – get pushed more towards the centre stage.

I suspect that deep down, the answer to all this wokeness (call it that, or whatever you like), is courage. Tories simply need to get much more vocal about their own convictions; the more speak up against this ideology, the better. Saying no to unconscious bias training is a good place to start.

Ryan Bourne: A message for Johnson and Sunak on tax rises. Not now. And not these.

2 Sep

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

How’s this for a false dichotomy? Last Saturday, Prospect asked: “Post-Covid, are taxes hikes essential to fund the future? Or should we abandon “deficit fetishism” and spend our way to prosperity?” [i.e. through borrowing]. I shouldn’t need to tell ConservativeHome readers that “spend to grow” and “spend to grow”—the only difference being how to finance it—are not an exhaustive set of fiscal policy options post-pandemic.

But that tweet, sadly, reflects conventional wisdom. You should take the pre-Budget briefing in the Sunday papers about Treasury desires for £20-30 billion in tax hikes through capital gains tax, corporation tax, fuel duty, an online sales tax and restrictions on pensions tax relief with a pinch of salt. Before every recent budget such stories have emerged, perhaps due to kite-flying or overexcited journalistic coverage of illustrative exercises in how one could raise revenues. One suspects the briefings may even be a political ploy—raising fears in the Tory base before Number Ten saves the day.

Yet there’s undoubtedly an unnerving regularity to them. Alongside a steady drumbeat from “One Nation” Tories and such organisations as the Resolution Foundation, the idea that large tax hikes will be desirable and necessary is taking hold, with Covid-19 apparently making this agenda more urgent.

We are told, as the kitchen sink of argumentation is thrown, that the pandemic itself proves the false economy of a “hollowed out” state after a decade of austerity. Or that the “levelling up” and the “inevitable” higher spending we will now want on health, welfare benefits, and higher public sector pay means tax hikes are needed. Or that the crisis necessitates urgent repair to the public finances, and that there’s simply nowhere left to cut spending.

None of these arguments, however, stand the test of reason. Countries that have dealt with the Coronavirus better include those (South Korea, Taiwan, Australia) with much lower tax-to-GDP ratios than the UK and much lower health spending too. Many with higher tax-to-GDP ratios (France, Belgium, Italy) have seen similarly shocking death tolls to us.

At best, any failure to deliver resources where needed reflects bad state priorities, not an impoverished public realm. Indeed, the story of a hollowed-out state at a time of the highest tax burden since the early 1980s, coupled with this international evidence, suggests ascribing blame to austerity for poor performance is both ahistorical and parochial.

The wisdom or otherwise of  the “levelling up” agenda, and how best to pay for it, is largely unrelated to the pandemic too. Actually, to the extent that Covid-19 affects the desirability of infrastructure and public service spending in the regions, it throws substantial doubt on the benefits of projects such as HS2 and other city and town revival plans.

Who knows what lasting impact the crisis will have on remote working, the location of activity, and favoured transport modes? One Nationers arguing that the virus proves the need to level up would have us believe that the pandemic’s effects are significant enough for a tax revolution, but insignificant enough to alter the desirability of any of their proposed spending. One might almost suggest motivated reasoning here.

In macroeconomic terms, the case for significant tax rises now is weaker still. The point of bridging support through furlough was to shelter businesses and workers from this unexpected shock. To pass the bill to the private sector now as it struggles back to life would strangle the recovery. And for what? Borrowing costs are low, and we have no idea yet whether and how much this crisis will leave a permanent budget hole once emergency spending stops and private sector activity revives. In fact, even borrowing to date has not been as high as initially feared.

Of course, the extra debt to deal with the crisis has to be paid somehow, eventually. But, as I argued here before, unusual shocks such as pandemics and wars primarily result in step-level debt-to-GDP increases rather than ongoing budget holes, because you stop spending on the immediate threat afterwards.

The implication is that modest consolidation over decades is optimal to account for the extra incurred debt, rather than adopting large tax increases to compensate over a Parliament. Economists call it “tax smoothing”—debt provides a safety valve to allow us to only modestly change spending or taxation over long periods to maintain incentives. Of course, if the Government thinks that, for political reasons, it must expand welfare benefits or health spending permanently, this would be a normative choice: there is nothing inevitable about sharp tax hikes.

Even if you think permanent scarring will occur, those taxes suggested to raise revenue seem bizarre choices today. The Government presumably wants us to be Covid-cautious still. Two ways of reducing risks would be to drive more rather than use public transport and to shop more online.

Aside from all the other downsides of raising fuel duty and introducing an online sales tax, to use the tax system to incentivise worsening virus transmission right now by making driving and online shopping more expensive seems bizarre.

Raising top capital gains tax rates to 40 or 45 per cent would simply be self-defeating from a revenue-raising perspective. Capital Gains Tax on many investments represents a double tax. The justification for having it at all is to deter people hiding income as capital gains.

But there’s a revenue-maximizing balance between this effect and deterring people from selling assets. The Coalition government introduced a top 28 per cent CGT rate precisely because HMRC research suggested this raised most revenue. Though it was then lowered to 20 per cent under George Osborne, raising it to 40 per cent plus would reduce revenue relative to a lower rate. We’d get less investment and entrepreneurship when we need it most too.

And then there’s the mooted corporation tax rise from 19 back to 24 per cent. Taxes on mobile capital will deter foreign investment just as Brexit is set to happen, as well as reducing the after-tax return on new domestic projects. Who will bear the costs? Not just “the wealthy,” as commonly asserted, but workers too: evidence suggests that they bear between 30 and 70 percent of the burden of taxes on corporations.

Not only is the tax rise call premature then, but the specific proposals don’t conform to the pandemic’s needs or Boris’s Johnson’s ambitions to create a high-wage economy. Covid-19 may permanently scar the public finances, sure. But as yet its full effects are unknown and there’s little cost to pausing to see. Anything else at this stage is using the crisis as a pretext for raising funds for hobby horses.

If the Prime Minister truly objects to this rationale as reported and understands the threat to the nascent recovery of sharp tax rises today, he should take this message to his Chancellor: on tax rises, not now and not these.

Ryan Bourne: A message for Johnson and Sunak on tax rises. Not now. And not these.

2 Sep

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

How’s this for a false dichotomy? Last Saturday, Prospect asked: “Post-Covid, are taxes hikes essential to fund the future? Or should we abandon “deficit fetishism” and spend our way to prosperity?” [i.e. through borrowing]. I shouldn’t need to tell ConservativeHome readers that “spend to grow” and “spend to grow”—the only difference being how to finance it—are not an exhaustive set of fiscal policy options post-pandemic.

But that tweet, sadly, reflects conventional wisdom. You should take the pre-Budget briefing in the Sunday papers about Treasury desires for £20-30 billion in tax hikes through capital gains tax, corporation tax, fuel duty, an online sales tax and restrictions on pensions tax relief with a pinch of salt. Before every recent budget such stories have emerged, perhaps due to kite-flying or overexcited journalistic coverage of illustrative exercises in how one could raise revenues. One suspects the briefings may even be a political ploy—raising fears in the Tory base before Number Ten saves the day.

Yet there’s undoubtedly an unnerving regularity to them. Alongside a steady drumbeat from “One Nation” Tories and such organisations as the Resolution Foundation, the idea that large tax hikes will be desirable and necessary is taking hold, with Covid-19 apparently making this agenda more urgent.

We are told, as the kitchen sink of argumentation is thrown, that the pandemic itself proves the false economy of a “hollowed out” state after a decade of austerity. Or that the “levelling up” and the “inevitable” higher spending we will now want on health, welfare benefits, and higher public sector pay means tax hikes are needed. Or that the crisis necessitates urgent repair to the public finances, and that there’s simply nowhere left to cut spending.

None of these arguments, however, stand the test of reason. Countries that have dealt with the Coronavirus better include those (South Korea, Taiwan, Australia) with much lower tax-to-GDP ratios than the UK and much lower health spending too. Many with higher tax-to-GDP ratios (France, Belgium, Italy) have seen similarly shocking death tolls to us.

At best, any failure to deliver resources where needed reflects bad state priorities, not an impoverished public realm. Indeed, the story of a hollowed-out state at a time of the highest tax burden since the early 1980s, coupled with this international evidence, suggests ascribing blame to austerity for poor performance is both ahistorical and parochial.

The wisdom or otherwise of  the “levelling up” agenda, and how best to pay for it, is largely unrelated to the pandemic too. Actually, to the extent that Covid-19 affects the desirability of infrastructure and public service spending in the regions, it throws substantial doubt on the benefits of projects such as HS2 and other city and town revival plans.

Who knows what lasting impact the crisis will have on remote working, the location of activity, and favoured transport modes? One Nationers arguing that the virus proves the need to level up would have us believe that the pandemic’s effects are significant enough for a tax revolution, but insignificant enough to alter the desirability of any of their proposed spending. One might almost suggest motivated reasoning here.

In macroeconomic terms, the case for significant tax rises now is weaker still. The point of bridging support through furlough was to shelter businesses and workers from this unexpected shock. To pass the bill to the private sector now as it struggles back to life would strangle the recovery. And for what? Borrowing costs are low, and we have no idea yet whether and how much this crisis will leave a permanent budget hole once emergency spending stops and private sector activity revives. In fact, even borrowing to date has not been as high as initially feared.

Of course, the extra debt to deal with the crisis has to be paid somehow, eventually. But, as I argued here before, unusual shocks such as pandemics and wars primarily result in step-level debt-to-GDP increases rather than ongoing budget holes, because you stop spending on the immediate threat afterwards.

The implication is that modest consolidation over decades is optimal to account for the extra incurred debt, rather than adopting large tax increases to compensate over a Parliament. Economists call it “tax smoothing”—debt provides a safety valve to allow us to only modestly change spending or taxation over long periods to maintain incentives. Of course, if the Government thinks that, for political reasons, it must expand welfare benefits or health spending permanently, this would be a normative choice: there is nothing inevitable about sharp tax hikes.

Even if you think permanent scarring will occur, those taxes suggested to raise revenue seem bizarre choices today. The Government presumably wants us to be Covid-cautious still. Two ways of reducing risks would be to drive more rather than use public transport and to shop more online.

Aside from all the other downsides of raising fuel duty and introducing an online sales tax, to use the tax system to incentivise worsening virus transmission right now by making driving and online shopping more expensive seems bizarre.

Raising top capital gains tax rates to 40 or 45 per cent would simply be self-defeating from a revenue-raising perspective. Capital Gains Tax on many investments represents a double tax. The justification for having it at all is to deter people hiding income as capital gains.

But there’s a revenue-maximizing balance between this effect and deterring people from selling assets. The Coalition government introduced a top 28 per cent CGT rate precisely because HMRC research suggested this raised most revenue. Though it was then lowered to 20 per cent under George Osborne, raising it to 40 per cent plus would reduce revenue relative to a lower rate. We’d get less investment and entrepreneurship when we need it most too.

And then there’s the mooted corporation tax rise from 19 back to 24 per cent. Taxes on mobile capital will deter foreign investment just as Brexit is set to happen, as well as reducing the after-tax return on new domestic projects. Who will bear the costs? Not just “the wealthy,” as commonly asserted, but workers too: evidence suggests that they bear between 30 and 70 percent of the burden of taxes on corporations.

Not only is the tax rise call premature then, but the specific proposals don’t conform to the pandemic’s needs or Boris’s Johnson’s ambitions to create a high-wage economy. Covid-19 may permanently scar the public finances, sure. But as yet its full effects are unknown and there’s little cost to pausing to see. Anything else at this stage is using the crisis as a pretext for raising funds for hobby horses.

If the Prime Minister truly objects to this rationale as reported and understands the threat to the nascent recovery of sharp tax rises today, he should take this message to his Chancellor: on tax rises, not now and not these.