Conservative think tank says innovation, skills, infrastructure and data key to UK’s COVID-19 recovery

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez June 23, 2020
Summary:
Centre for Policy Studies has released a report called ‘After the Virus’, which collates ideas for the UK to find growth post COVID-19.

Image of a man holding growth charts
(Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay )

Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid MP has joined forces with Conservative think tank Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) to outline a number of recommendations for the UK's post-COVID-19 recovery, in a new report entitled ‘After the Virus'.

The recommendations are wide ranging, but there is a focus on: changing regulation to support innovation; making it easier for graduates with skills in science and tech to come and live and work in the UK; investing in the roll-out of nationwide digital infrastructure; and creating a data-task force within government to make better evidence-based policy decisions.

The report argues that it is increasingly unlikely - as was first hoped - that the UK will see a V-shaped recovery from the impact of the novel Coronavirus. It states that the need to maintain social distancing, as well as the hit to consumer and business confidence, will likely present huge challenges to renewed economic growth.

In a foreword to the recommendations, Sajid David says:

Because of its service-based economy, the UK is more exposed than most. The Bank of England has suggested that the decrease in output this year could be as high at 14%, the most severe for three centuries. The fall in GDP during March and April alone has already wiped out 18 years of growth. As a result, 2.5 million people could lose their jobs by late summer.

The only way out of this crisis is growth. And although early hopes for a V-shaped recovery proved optimistic and some long-term damage to the economy is unavoidable, it is still within the Government's power to determine the speed and scale of recovery.

The purpose of this report is to support the efforts of ministers to instigate the strongest possible recovery. As the Government puts together a stimulus package, it is essential that no stone is left unturned. Boldness, as well as out-of-the-box thinking, is the order of the day.

More data needed

CPS and Javid state that this economic crisis is one that has never been seen before and that the impact of measures such as social distancing are still uncertain. As a result, the report argues that monitoring the recovery and collecting as much data as possible should be a top priority.

It notes that data should play a vital role in forming opinions and developing policy - but that there are surprising gaps in the government's evidence base, which places limits on its ability to make informed decisions.

The report states:

Given there has been so much sudden, dramatic and unpredictable change in the last few months, it will be more important than ever to have reliable and up-to-date data.

It is notable, for example, that we have spent the first few months of the lockdown having little clue of what was really happening to unemployment because of the time lag on the official statistics; the Resolution Foundation used Google search term data to give and indication of job losses.

In terms of recommendations, the report suggests that DWP and HMRC could conduct an assessment of what real-time data is available to them on their systems, which could be useful for monitoring economic trends during the recession and recovery.

However, in addition to this, it urges the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to urgently form a joint COVID-19 Data Taskforce to coordinate between policy makers and statisticians.

Modern working needs digital infrastructure

The government has been promising and re-promising world-class digital infrastructure for years. And whilst progress has been made in areas, the UK consistently falls behind its peers when it comes to the rollout of full-fibre broadband in all areas of the country.

CPS talks about investing in ‘shovel ready' infrastructure projects, but also focuses on improving transport networks and ‘levelling up' areas of the country outside of the affluent South-East in order to unlock untapped productivity in towns and cities outside of the London region.

However, it adds that the pandemic has changed the nature of work for many, with distributed teams working from home quickly becoming the ‘norm'. As such, good digital connectivity is vital for economic resilience.

The report states:

For our left-behind regions to thrive we need to invest in world-leading digital infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Strategy should set out a fully funded path for achieving the manifesto commitment of full coverage of full fibre and gigabit-capable networks in every part of the country by 2025.

We should also set an ambition to have a full fibre national network by the end of the decade. Other large nations, such as Japan and Spain, are far ahead of us on digital connectivity - we need to put that right as quickly as possible.

Innovation

As to be expected, CPS and Javid argue that when firms are struggling through an economic crisis, the last thing they need is new red tape. The report states that the regulatory burden on business should be as limited as possible while the economy gets back on its feed.

In line with this, it recommends that over the long term the UK's regulatory regime needs to be geared towards "accommodating innovation and change". This is particularly pertinent, it goes on to add, as the UK has an opportunity to be a world leader in a number of high-growth tech sectors, such as artificial intelligence and life sciences - but that innovative new products can pose challenges for regulatory regimes.

The report states:

Firms need to know how their innovations will fit into the regulatory environment and that they will not be held back by out-of- date rules. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have been doing some great work in recent years on helping innovative firms bring products to market through advice and ‘regulatory sandboxes', which allow firms to test new concepts and products in a controlled environment with supervision and advice from the regulator.

And goes on to recommend that:

To build on good work such as this, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should help pave the way for innovations to be brought to market through regulatory support for firms and automatic updating of regulations to accommodate new technologies and concepts.

CPS suggests that this could be done directly through a cross-regulatory ‘single entry point' for innovators, or via sectoral regulatory bodies. It argues that the system should adopt a ‘anticipatory regulation approach'.

Skills

Immigration has been a central topic for the Conservative government for years, fuelling much of its Brexit agenda. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already announced an ‘unlimited' visa for the world's top scientists and the government has laid out its plans for a points-based skills system.

CPS states that the UK's economy should be open to the world for investment and trade, as this will mean more tax revenue for the Exchequer. And whilst the report states that "we absolutely do not want to return to the bad old days of unrestricted immigration", it argues that in order to help create jobs, the UK needs to remain open to the "best and brightest around the world".

The report recommends that to attract "elite talent and skills" from across the world, the government should introduce a visa scheme to automatically allow those who have graduated from one of the top 50 academic institutions globally within the last five years into the UK for work and research.

It states that this would be aimed at "facilitating greater interaction between UK industry and institutions and the cream of global talent in science and technology".

My take

As the report notes, these are unprecedented times and a thoughtful, long-term response to the crisis from the government is needed. A lot of what is being suggested, in all honesty, are ideas that have been made available to the government for years - but have largely been ignored. Whatever the chosen policy route, what is essential is sustainability. This economic crisis has been sharp and deeply felt, but what is required is a view that builds an economy that can be sustained for the long-term.