GOVERNMENT HAD NO CHOICE OTHER THAN TO RE-OPEN
2020 is a year that we will all want to forget about as quickly as possible, and we hope that we can look forward to a better 2021. Naturally, how good 2021 will turn out to be from a societal and economic perspective will be totally influenced by vaccine-related issues, rather than anything else. In that context, there are certainly grounds for optimism at the moment. We can only hope that safe and effective vaccines will delivered over the coming months, and equally our health authorities will do a better job of dispensing it than they have done in managing the crisis since March.
Last week we heard some government heads pointing out that many of Ireland’s COVID-related statistics are now amongst the best in Europe. I guess that is what is achievable, if policy makers are prepared to sacrifice business, livelihoods and the mental health of the nation. Ireland has endured the toughest restrictions across the EU, so naturally we should be doing better than others on the infection front.
We could obviously have remained locked down for another two months, in which case our COVID statistics might look great, but at what cost? A series of rolling lockdowns is not a good strategy, and is indicative of policy failure in other areas. As Government has said, but had until Friday last appeared to ignore, we have to learn to live with the awful virus.
I was somewhat amused and somewhat angered over the weekend by the reaction of some of the health-related talking heads that have dominated our media since March. They cannot appear to accept that the decision taken by Government on Friday has any justification, and they are promising us very rough times early in the new year. Perhaps these dire predictions will come to pass, but rational thinkers would have to accept that Government did not have much choice, if viewed in the context of livelihoods, mental health, and business survival. Another four or five weeks of lockdown would have resulted in a type of anarchy from many young people in particular. It is the right decision to open many businesses in as safe and controlled way as possible, while recognising there is nothing risk free.
A quick perusal of the most up to date labour market statistics is a sobering experience. On 23rd November, 352,078 people were in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP). Of this total, over 16 per cent are from the retail sector, and over 29 per cent are from the accommodation and food services sector. In total, these two sectors account for over 160,000 people. In addition, over one quarter of total PUP recipients are under the age of 25. Not alone has our younger generation suffered disproportionately on the labour market front, they have also had the potentially most exciting time of their lives put on hold, by health policymakers. This situation cannot be sustained.
Between the PUP, the Live Register and the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme, over 900,000 workers have been in receipt of some form of welfare payment during Level 5. These dire labour market issues, their associated fiscal cost, and their impact on the mental health of the nation were instrumental in the Government decision to stand up to the scorched earth policy recommended by NPHET. The Minister for Finance has estimated that remaining at Level 5 for December would have cost a further €1 billion. Of course, the various tax revenues that would have been foregone through VAT etc, would increase this cost considerably.
Opening up is a risky strategy from a health perspective, but I sense that sticking with Level 5 would actually have given rise to behaviours that could have turned out to be riskier than the path that is being chosen.
As the economy is being re-opened, Brexit is of course grinding slowly towards some sort of conclusion, but we are not yet sure what the nature of that conclusion will be. Deal or no deal, we are heading towards some variation of a hard Brexit that will fundamentally alter how we do business with the UK. There is not a lot we can do about that. The UK is on the brink of making a once in a generation mistake of monumental proportions. We will have to adapt to the new scenario and make sure we manage the downside and be prepared to exploit as fully as possible the opportunities that will be presented. We have no choice.