Hating to have been right

In the slightly less frantic period of university activity that precedes my pending retirement and actually offers time to think, I am prompted to look back at some of the predictions I made about the pandemic and the UK’s social and economic future well over a year ago – notably, that post-pandemic economic contraction would mean that ‘the United Kingdom is over as a desirable place to live and work, for a very long time, except for those living in gated communities or behind castle walls’.  Although the contraction does not (yet) approximate the ‘post-Soviet style economic and health collapse’ that I anticipated in January 2021, it was reported on 22 August that the UK economy contracted by 11 percent in 2020 – the largest year-on-year decline in GDP since 1709.  Please note that this reflects only the first year of the pandemic, and neither the short-lived post-lockdown recovery nor the cataclysmic geopolitical events of 2022.  (Proponents of ‘degrowth’ might nevertheless reflect on how well 2020 turned out, and for whom.)

Ongoing uncertainties and supply chain disruptions associated with the pandemic have now been compounded by the inflationary effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; its weaponisation of natural gas trade and, at least temporarily, further disruption of agricultural exports; and a domestic political vacuum that sees the probable next prime minister characterised (accurately) as on ‘holiday from reality’ by a senior Cabinet colleague.  Average real (inflation adjusted) earnings in the second quarter of 2022 fell at a record rate, whilst one forecast was that under existing institutional arrangements, the ‘capped’ amount a British household will pay for energy could rise to more than £6,000 by April 2023, from less than a third of that in August 2022.   This will be a minor inconvenience for Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover, but on one estimate – based on a lower assumed energy price than what is in the latest forecasts at this writing – 45 million people will experience ‘fuel poverty’ on a standard definition.

These impacts are, of course, attributable not only to the pandemic but also to geopolitics, and it is plausible to argue that the impacts I’ve described would be much less severe had the Russian invasion not taken place.  But the world is as it is, not as we might wish it to be.  Further, I was wrong – I am thoroughly delighted to say – about some things, especially the prospects for what turned out to be a relatively successful UK vaccine rollout.  Nevertheless, according to The Economist’s (paywalled) tracking of excess deaths from all causes – the most meaningful measure of successful pandemic response – Britain’s figure of 253 excess deaths per 100,000 people between the start of the pandemic and 23 August is comparable to Chile, Guatemala and Lebanon; almost twice as high as Sweden; and roughly three times as high as Norway, Denmark and Canada.  So the glass is definitely only half full, and the British figure may well deteriorate further against the background of an already fragile and under-resourced health system; a social safety net stretched to the breaking point; and a political leadership seemingly bent on emulating the captain of the Titanic in its response to the economic emergency.  Those castle walls will look awfully attractive to those for whom they are available.