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.

Andrew Green: As unemployment soars, why are Ministers harming our young people – by helping migrants compete for their jobs?

9 Sep

Lord Green is President of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.

This week, the Government is promoting its “Kickstart” scheme – a £2 billion programme which Ministers claim will put young people at the heart of our economic recovery.

Really? So what about their “new entrant” route in the immigration system that will come into force in January? Perhaps this is another case of the left hand having no idea what the right hand is doing?

Very few people have realised what an impact this new route could have on our youngsters. Their employment prospects are already very worrying. Unemployment is likely to run into millions across the whole workforce, and our school leavers will already face strong competition from British workers who will have lost their jobs and who already have several years of work experience.

That is a daunting prospect, but it is made even worse by the special deal that the Government is planning to offer to employers to recruit young workers from all over the world.

The Government already intends to lower the qualifications required to work in the UK from degree level to A level, thus placing migrants in direct competition with our school leavers. Worse, there will be a special scheme for younger workers, under 26 when they first arrive, for whom the salary requirement will be only £20,480 per year – little more than the National Living Wage.

As if that was not enough, the Government is also planning to remove the current requirement that jobs should be advertised in the UK before being offered to workers from abroad. This has been a requirement for decades and for a very good reason – to require employers to give British workers a shot at applying before a job is given to a foreign applicant.

However, employers say this is inconvenient (no surprise there), so the Government is deferring to their wishes, and will abolish it from next January when the new immigration system comes into force.

And, on top of all that, there is to be no limit on the numbers, from all over the world and of whatever age, permitted to come to work in the UK.

Will they come? Of course they will, and not just “new entrants”. The number of foreign workers who meet these requirements and are likely to have the necessary level of English (so far unspecified) runs literally into tens of millions.

For many, the salary is far more than they could earn at home. Furthermore, some will have relatives already here who will encourage them. Others will be attracted by the right to settle here after five years – a right that also extends to “new entrants”

That in turn will bring the possibility of eventually bringing a wife, children and other dependants over from their home country with free education for any children and, after settlement, free health care for all. What is there not to like about such an offer?

As for the employers who have ruthlessly pressed for these arrangements, how will they respond? Well, of course, they will be out recruiting. Cheaper, obedient labour unlikely to unionise. What more could they ask for?

And, if you are in any doubt consider what happened when we opened our labour market to East European workers with no limit on numbers. Within four years, there were half a million in the UK, and hundreds of thousands more were taken on in the years following the Great Financial Crash while the number of unemployed British workers remained stubbornly high.

Then, some half a million Romanians and Bulgarians came following the opening up of the employment market to them in 2014. Remember that firm in Northampton that recruited a plane load of 300 Hungarians to make sandwiches? When the Government checked afterwards, they found that the firm had not even approached the local job centre to see if there were any British workers available.

So, in a nutshell, there is to be no limit on the number of foreign workers that employers can bring in to the UK and if they are under 26, have the equivalent of A Levels, and speak some English they can be brought in on pay not much higher than the living wage.

This scheme threatens the jobs, training and future of our young people. The number of young British workers who will be directly affected by this scheme is roughly one and a half million. They have had disruption enough in their young lives. The least that the Government can do in the current crisis is to withdraw this dangerous proposal.

Alexandra Marsanu: Working from home – and why we need evolution, not a revolution

6 Sep

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.

A polarising debate has been taking place recently.  On one hand, there is a rare alliance between the Government, media and auxiliary businesses denouncing the impact of homeworking on highstreets, career growth and the mental health of the workers themselves. On the other, you see a majority of workers perfectly content to keep calm and carry on.

No more squeezing on the tube at rush hour; no more money wasted on soggy sandwiches and coffee; no more interruptions or time lost in pointless chitchat over what you did last weekend. An era of high productivity and improved home life is upon us. But would it really be that easy?

Rather than an expected gradual shift to flexible working driven by innovation in collaboration tools, an increase in the ‘gig economy’ or drive for decarbonisation, we have not been given time or choice.

Over the course of a few unusual days, offices were shut down and kitchen tables were seized for the new digital future of the 2020s. We have made do so well with Zoom and Teams and home-made banana loaf that office life seems from a bygone era – not fit for the modern days of self-driving cars and 3D printed buildings. But let’s not forget that they say ‘good things take time’ for a reason.

Although our homes may be packed with monitors and Amazon boxes, many business owners are looking at the empty chairs and aisles and wondering for how long they can still go on. The furlough anaesthetic is due to wear off, and with money quickly running out many are in for a tough autumn.

And for some, it may indeed be time to close shop. Why should taxpayers prop up a chain business just because they hire many people? For many others, it may be difficult to see the value in what they offer. Why would we need to go out and spend our hard-earned money on overcrowded trains and £3 coffee?

Of course, it is difficult to empathise with businesses. After all, the free market will take its tool eventually. But with a £2 trillion debt and still many months of uncertainty to come, there is a case for the economics that has worked so well until now.

Through the measures seen so far, the Government seems to be doing just that. Taking a page out of Keynesian economics, it’s looking to maintain today’s supply for when demand recovers, hopefully next year. And given how symbiotic our economy is, nothing makes more sense.

Many professional areas can be taken as examples. In consulting, banking and legal services the mix of industries needing support is under a constant shift. Where public sector work may be building up in the short term for areas such as consultancy, the impact of huge retailers or automotive companies shutting down is already playing out, and will do so during the months and years to come

Similarly, jobs supporting the most affected industries ranging from marketing to accounting may take a hit as cuts to the frontline are slimming down operations. Even a coveted career in technology may not be completely safe, since technology changes take years to implement and big players such as Accenture or IBM are already reporting job cuts in the past few months. If the impact is big enough, one way or another thange will reach all of us.

So what is there to do? Isn’t the Government’s job to save jobs? Is it really up to each of us to dash to the office so we can put yet another plaster on the economy? After all, we have already eaten our way towards the hospitability recovery last month.

Well, the fact of the matter is that we can’t just go back to the old ways. You see, there wouldn’t really be the space for all of us to go back in the office due to social distancing.

But we can’t expect that the world we see today is here for the long run. Not in an economy which is 30 per cent based on consumption. Unemployment benefits and a significant decrease in tax receipts will only divert from spending which can help make public services better or ease the debt for future generations. Considering a phased or rotational return to the office may be our best contribution until the tourists are back or workers can re-skill.

An exciting ‘future of work’ revolution is already here – one where we balance our work and home life in hybrid working patterns fit for a highly productive economy. And it may indeed be a useless pursuit to spend the money today in saving something that won’t be required tomorrow. But no revolution comes without pain and time to rebuild is what’s needed now.

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.

Ryan Bourne: Sunak should not and cannot try today to restore pre-virus Britain. It’s gone – and we must now adapt.

7 Jul

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

Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.

Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.

Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high street spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “normal” meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.

Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.

It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.

Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.

This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.

For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.

But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”

We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.

So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.

That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.

Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.

It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.

Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.

The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.

As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’  and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.

Ryan Bourne: Sunak should not and cannot try today to restore pre-virus Britain. It’s gone – and we must now adapt.

7 Jul

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

Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.

Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.

Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high stcororeet spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “norma”l meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.

Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.

It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.

Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.

This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.

For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.

But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”

We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.

So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.

That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.

Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.

It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.

Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.

The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.

As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’  and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.

Richard Holden: On Wednesday, Sunak needs to display as much confidence in Britain as local publications are showing in North West Durham

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Dairy Barn Cafe, North Bitchburn

As Saturday approached, you could feel the febrile excitement and demand for “the story” across the media. Television news and radio bulletins boiled over with predictions of carnage on Saturday night. The broadcasters and papers were eagerly anticipating Freshers Week-esque scenes of drunken debauchery as the public decided to get wasted in a post-lockdown bacchanal.

In North West Durham, I spent Saturday evening visiting the: Duke of Wellington, Consett Rugby Club, the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate and finally the Black Lion, my local in Wolsingham. I’m afraid that I must report that calm and friendly were the orders of the evenings – as it appears were the scenes across the rest of the country too.

Tog, the landlord of the Duke, four doors down from my office on Medomsley Road, took me to his beer garden to show me a mural he’d commissioned during lockdown from a local artist. Sarah-Jane, at the Black Lion, had me take a peak at how she’d transformed her beer garden from a flagged smoking area to a lively and welcoming garden of tables, tasteful lighting and colourful plants and flowers.

It was superb to see responsible local businesses at the heart of their communities investing in their businesses, and ensuring a safe and socially distanced experience for their customers. This hope of better things to come from local firms, with small but significant investments in themselves, is really welcome at a time when I know so many people are not only worried by the virus, but also about their jobs and their incomes.

However, in many sectors of the economy the broad economic impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic is coming through hard, and is reflecting just how interconnected demand is across our economy.

To give one example: at first as the crisis broke, I had travel agents and their staff get in touch. Then came had pilots and crew from Easyjet and British Airways based at Newcastle airport, as the airlines cut back. More recently, I’ve been in touch with a local manufacturing firm which makes inner parts for the wings of Airbus planes, and which is having to lay off half its staff (some of their factories across the UK have closed completely and will not re-open).

Very quickly, the lack of ability to – and demand for – travel has led to manufacturing job losses well down the chain. It’s clear that some sectors have been far more badly affected than others, and that base consumer demand is having a rapid knock-on effect.

Looking out of the panoramic window of the just re-opened Dairy Barn Café, I can see right up Weardale, and am reminded of a conversation I had early in the last election campaign. “Remember, we’re the working dale, Richard” a man in late middle-age in local authority housing in Stanhope had said to me.

At the time it made me think of where I grew up on the other side of the Pennines – walking up Pendle Hill in Lancashire 20 years ago, and looking south to the mill towns of East Lancashire nestled in the valleys below. Working towns like Burnley, Colne and Accrington which have since switched to electing Conservative MPs.

As the furlough scheme, which protected so many jobs at the height of the lockdown is wound down, we’ve got to do everything we can to help return demand to the economy – the demand that comes from confidence in the future. Demand that means work for decent working people up and down the seats of the ‘Blue Wall’.

This confidence and positive view to the future is not something anyone’s hearing from the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. The best thing he could muster last week was to suggest that the Government was giving “mixed messages” by saying, “get out and about, have a drink, but do so safely”.  Which shows that he’s struggling to get cut-through – especially when the man in the village pub in County Durham is by and large is doing exactly what the Government has suggested.

Labour’s shambolic response to getting children back to school, by saying one thing nationally and another in Labour-run local authorities, certainly inspires no-one with confidence – except a growing confidence that Sir Keir is a political opportunist. He was, after all, remarkably quiet on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, in order to keep hold of Momentum votes for the leadership. And he tried to play both sides with Labour’s disastrous “we’ll accept the result, but negotiate a new deal, and then have a second referendum” policy on Brexit.

Perhaps most interestingly, this weekend marked the first time that any constituent has mentioned the Labour leader to me unprompted. She was a former Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives in 2017 (and had managed to convince her husband to do so in 2019), and it was clear that, after being initially open-minded, the new Labour leader was leaving them increasingly cool.

The Government has done well in giving support to business and jobs – Rishi Sunak has certainly won fans across the country for that. But without wanting to pile too much pressure on the Chancellor ahead of his statement on Wednesday, we’re all only as good as our most recent decisions in politics.

As we move out of the initial stages of lockdown, Rishi’s decision must be to put confidence as much confidence and therefore demand back into the economy – especially in hard hit sectors – as he can. Everyone knows that it’s going to a difficult time and no-one expects the Government to get everything a hundred per cent right, but voters do expect us to really try.

And in doing so over the next few weeks and months, the Government has got to show the confidence in Britain that my local publicans in North West Durham are showing. And, as they press ahead with “levelling up” their pubs, we must also keep that long-term goal in mind too for the North.

Confidence is the thing that underlies every relationship with the state that we have – from policing with consent to the value of the fiat currency in our pocket. Confidence that governments have the people in mind and the ability to deliver is what keeps them in office.

The electorate here in County Durham and in the mill Towns of East Lancashire took us into their confidence and bestowed their votes upon us. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the Government has supported people. Now our task is to give our businesses the confidence to look to the future positively, which will in turn give the people who work for them the confidence to invest and spend in a virtuous circle, bouncing forward out of the fear of recent months and towards the hope of a brighter future.

Richard Holden: On Wednesday, Sunak needs to display as much confidence in Britain as local publications are showing in North West Durham

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Dairy Barn Cafe, North Bitchburn

As Saturday approached, you could feel the febrile excitement and demand for “the story” across the media. Television news and radio bulletins boiled over with predictions of carnage on Saturday night. The broadcasters and papers were eagerly anticipating Freshers Week-esque scenes of drunken debauchery as the public decided to get wasted in a post-lockdown bacchanal.

In North West Durham, I spent Saturday evening visiting the: Duke of Wellington, Consett Rugby Club, the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate and finally the Black Lion, my local in Wolsingham. I’m afraid that I must report that calm and friendly were the orders of the evenings – as it appears were the scenes across the rest of the country too.

Tog, the landlord of the Duke, four doors down from my office on Medomsley Road, took me to his beer garden to show me a mural he’d commissioned during lockdown from a local artist. Sarah-Jane, at the Black Lion, had me take a peak at how she’d transformed her beer garden from a flagged smoking area to a lively and welcoming garden of tables, tasteful lighting and colourful plants and flowers.

It was superb to see responsible local businesses at the heart of their communities investing in their businesses, and ensuring a safe and socially distanced experience for their customers. This hope of better things to come from local firms, with small but significant investments in themselves, is really welcome at a time when I know so many people are not only worried by the virus, but also about their jobs and their incomes.

However, in many sectors of the economy the broad economic impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic is coming through hard, and is reflecting just how interconnected demand is across our economy.

To give one example: at first as the crisis broke, I had travel agents and their staff get in touch. Then came had pilots and crew from Easyjet and British Airways based at Newcastle airport, as the airlines cut back. More recently, I’ve been in touch with a local manufacturing firm which makes inner parts for the wings of Airbus planes, and which is having to lay off half its staff (some of their factories across the UK have closed completely and will not re-open).

Very quickly, the lack of ability to – and demand for – travel has led to manufacturing job losses well down the chain. It’s clear that some sectors have been far more badly affected than others, and that base consumer demand is having a rapid knock-on effect.

Looking out of the panoramic window of the just re-opened Dairy Barn Café, I can see right up Weardale, and am reminded of a conversation I had early in the last election campaign. “Remember, we’re the working dale, Richard” a man in late middle-age in local authority housing in Stanhope had said to me.

At the time it made me think of where I grew up on the other side of the Pennines – walking up Pendle Hill in Lancashire 20 years ago, and looking south to the mill towns of East Lancashire nestled in the valleys below. Working towns like Burnley, Colne and Accrington which have since switched to electing Conservative MPs.

As the furlough scheme, which protected so many jobs at the height of the lockdown is wound down, we’ve got to do everything we can to help return demand to the economy – the demand that comes from confidence in the future. Demand that means work for decent working people up and down the seats of the ‘Blue Wall’.

This confidence and positive view to the future is not something anyone’s hearing from the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. The best thing he could muster last week was to suggest that the Government was giving “mixed messages” by saying, “get out and about, have a drink, but do so safely”.  Which shows that he’s struggling to get cut-through – especially when the man in the village pub in County Durham is by and large is doing exactly what the Government has suggested.

Labour’s shambolic response to getting children back to school, by saying one thing nationally and another in Labour-run local authorities, certainly inspires no-one with confidence – except a growing confidence that Sir Keir is a political opportunist. He was, after all, remarkably quiet on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, in order to keep hold of Momentum votes for the leadership. And he tried to play both sides with Labour’s disastrous “we’ll accept the result, but negotiate a new deal, and then have a second referendum” policy on Brexit.

Perhaps most interestingly, this weekend marked the first time that any constituent has mentioned the Labour leader to me unprompted. She was a former Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives in 2017 (and had managed to convince her husband to do so in 2019), and it was clear that, after being initially open-minded, the new Labour leader was leaving them increasingly cool.

The Government has done well in giving support to business and jobs – Rishi Sunak has certainly won fans across the country for that. But without wanting to pile too much pressure on the Chancellor ahead of his statement on Wednesday, we’re all only as good as our most recent decisions in politics.

As we move out of the initial stages of lockdown, Rishi’s decision must be to put confidence as much confidence and therefore demand back into the economy – especially in hard hit sectors – as he can. Everyone knows that it’s going to a difficult time and no-one expects the Government to get everything a hundred per cent right, but voters do expect us to really try.

And in doing so over the next few weeks and months, the Government has got to show the confidence in Britain that my local publicans in North West Durham are showing. And, as they press ahead with “levelling up” their pubs, we must also keep that long-term goal in mind too for the North.

Confidence is the thing that underlies every relationship with the state that we have – from policing with consent to the value of the fiat currency in our pocket. Confidence that governments have the people in mind and the ability to deliver is what keeps them in office.

The electorate here in County Durham and in the mill Towns of East Lancashire took us into their confidence and bestowed their votes upon us. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the Government has supported people. Now our task is to give our businesses the confidence to look to the future positively, which will in turn give the people who work for them the confidence to invest and spend in a virtuous circle, bouncing forward out of the fear of recent months and towards the hope of a brighter future.

Charlotte Pickles: Ten million people are at risk of becoming unemployed. They must be Sunak’s priority this week.

5 Jul

Charlotte Pickles is Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Reform think tank.

The Chancellor’s economic statement next week may be his biggest test yet. During the last few days, UK firms have announced 12,000 job losses. John Lewis, Upper Crust, Topshop, Airbus, WH Smith, TM Lewin, Easy Jet, Accenture are just some of the household names cutting jobs. Small businesses will be doing the same; you just won’t hear about them.

This is the start of the wave of redundancies Reform predicted back in April when we called on the Government to extend the furlough scheme and make it more flexible. The Government stepped up then; they need to do so again. The alternative is the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.

Some readers will be sceptical. Great swathes of the economy reopened this weekend. Across the pond, the American economy added almost five million jobs in June, and the rise in the Eurozone’s unemployment rate in May was lower than expected.

At home, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, announced that consumer spending had “risen both sooner and materially faster” than predicted, meaning the GDP hit could be half that predicted in May. Very good news indeed.

However, underneath these headline green shoots is a much starker picture. Haldane also says that the labour market outlook is not as encouraging – that unemployment could be worse than the Bank’s May forecast. As in much of Europe, where more than 40 million people remain supported on furlough schemes, we have no idea if furloughed workers will return to work or join the unemployment rolls.

So while it is promising news that the UK economy appears to be bouncing back, it would be dangerously foolish to assume a jobs recovery at the same pace. Indeed, vacancies last week were down 24 per cent on the previous week.

Next month, businesses are required to start contributing to the cost of their furloughed workers. That’s reasonable, over nine million people have had their wages subsidised and the Government cannot continue this £10 billion-a-month support indefinitely – not least as it risks keeping people in ‘zombie jobs’, delaying their move into new roles and damaging the economy further.

But the phasing out of the furlough scheme will trigger more redundancies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have gone for three months with little to no revenue. The Government’s loans and grants provided a lifeline for many, but social distancing measures and people’s fear of the virus will mean suppressed revenues for some time.

Expenditure will have to be cut if businesses are to stay afloat – half of companies expect to make redundancies in the next few months.

Which is precisely why the Chancellor must use his statement on Wednesday to announce a comprehensive and ambitious plan for averting mass unemployment.

Because while it might be reasonable to see how consumers respond to the further lifting of lockdown before taking a decision on something like a VAT cut – which would be pointlessly costly if the issue isn’t demand – delaying decisions about investment in employment and skills could be catastrophic.

In a new report this week, produced jointly by Reform and the Learning and Work Institute, we estimate that around ten million people are potentially at risk of unemployment. Those at greatest risk are in areas that already had high unemployment, have low qualification levels and are currently in low paid work. In other words, they will be least resilient to losing their jobs. The result of inaction, even delayed action, will be a levelling down.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to undo the decade-long underinvestment in skills; to help workers “train and retrain for the jobs and industries of the future”.

This recession is unique for its sectoral nature, meaning a large number of workers will not only need to find new jobs, but to switch careers. But it is also unique in that the Government has a direct line to those most vulnerable to unemployment – the furlough scheme.

The Prime Minster should deliver on his manifesto promise with a bold offer to anyone on furlough, or in an at-risk sector like retail or hospitality. This should include universal entitlement to funding for a qualification, or modules of a qualification, up to and including level three, as well as online advice and support.

For those needing to change careers, which we estimate will be up to 200,000 people, the Government should provide a £5,000 learning account for accredited training. They should also receive a time-limited, means-tested maintenance grant to help mitigate wage drops as they start over in a new sector. Eligibility could be linked to an individual’s history of National Insurance contributions.

And to incentivise employers both to hire apprentices and career changers, and to pay living wages, the Government should allow firms to use a proportion of their apprenticeship levy to support wages, with an equivalent grant for SMEs.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor must show the same bold thinking that delivered the furlough scheme. Failure to act now could mean mass unemployment with its sky-high social and economic costs. That’s a legacy the Government should do everything to avoid.