The Covid-19 pandemic has suspended economic and social life. Ben Wray says British authorities are not thinking expansively enough about the consequences. We need a planned economy now to meet essential needs.
When the imminent lockdown comes into force in the UK, it will be only one small step in preventing a social catastrophe. The second is to equip the NHS with everything it needs – testing, ventilators, masks, beds, nurses, doctors, and so on – at lightening speed.
But a third step, and one that is being missed, is preparing for the rebound effects from locking down the economy, which in the medium to long-term are as important as the lockdown itself. Unless these are managed through a planned economy to distribute essentials, there will be major problems down the line, and not very far down the line at all. Two important stories emerged today (23 March) relating to this dawning reality in Scotland.
The first was a piece in The Times about fruit pickers. The first four lines read:
“Fruit crops may be left to rot in Scottish fields, with the coronavirus and Brexit expected to lead to a chronic labour shortage.
“The country’s strawberries and raspberries are widely regarded as some of the best in the world, and the soft fruit industry generates about £120 million every year.
“However, the bulk of the workers who have traditionally harvested the crop have returned to eastern Europe because of Brexit, and Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are now on lockdown because of Covid-19.
“The National Farmers Union (NFU) Scotland issued an appeal to locals who have lost jobs in their hospitality sector after the outbreak lead to closures of restaurants and venues to come and fill the shortfall.”
This may not sound like much, but given the context it is a big threat. To put it simply, people need food. If the food supply is not ensured for everyone in a lockdown situation, you have a disaster on your hands. Already, because rationing has not been put in place, there has been some evidence of hoarding. You can moralise with people all day and night, but the simple fact is that if people are scared that they aren’t going to get food because other people are or could hoard, this will happen. We have government to set rules to prevent social catastrophes like that. So government has to govern.
The economics of food are not simple in the context of a Pandemic. We don’t yet know what impact this crisis will have on global supply chains, but we can pretty much guarantee it will be disruptive. Even if, somehow, widespread lockdown and sickness did not stop global food supply chains to a significant extent, governments could decide themselves to halt exports and divert their grown food to their national economy in this crisis. Globalisation is breaking down and the UK has to be prepared for how that impacts food.
The latest government data states that 50% of UK food is domestically supplied. 30% comes from EU countries, and another 20% from the rest of the world. So for 50% of food, we rely on imports. Of course we also export food, but not nearly as much as we import: we have a £1.71 billion trade deficit in food (see graph below). This could prove a major vulnerability in this crisis if government does not prepare for it now.
The workforce issue, highlighted by The Times article, is just one source of vulnerability in this regard, but it is an important one. Agricultural workers are key workers. If we don’t have enough of them the supply chain breaks down at the start. We cannot allow berries to rot on Scottish farms. So government must make sure it does not happen. It must plan food production, distribution and exchange either through edicts to supermarkets and producers or by nationalising those sectors to ensure what needs to happen, does. NFU Scotland at least shows it understands the scale of the problem with its appeals to locals made unemployed to become fruit pickers, but the idea that this is a reliable strategy to deal with the risk of a breakdown in food supply is not realistic.
Care is another area that is extremely important to get our heads around quickly. I will not go into as much detail here, other than to point to an article in The Herald today about Home Care Services being slashed by 60 per cent to prioritise ‘Priority 1’ cover only. This will have a lot of people in Glasgow terrified, and understandably so. There are three points to make here.
First, local authorities (perhaps through Cosla) can’t simply settle for their present budgets. They’ve seen what the UK Government can do now in terms of money creation: demand money now. And if not money, demand the Public Works Loan Board drops its interest rates on local authority borrowing to zero. It’s sheer madness for local authorities not to have their coffers boosted by central government urgently.
The second matter is to use that money to rapidly employ and train a care service to ensure we leave no one behind. A redeployment scheme is needed now to move people from hospitality, aviation, tourism and retail into care (and the NHS), with a rapid training scheme established.
The third matter is to build solidarity communities. Around the world mutual aid groups are being established. We will get through this with much less hardship if people get organised at soon as possible, community-by-community, to ensure no one is left behind.
Food and care are two of the big rebound challenges of going into lockdown. They cannot be ignored. Neither can they be left to a market that is broken. In this article for Bella Caledonia I explain more broadly the concept of a socially planned economy and why this has to be established now.