As published in The Times Red Box:
Now that the government has accepted the need for much more parliamentary scrutiny over the lockdown measures, it is time to make the case for freedom.
One of the most damaging effects of Covid-19 is its corrosive destruction of global free trade. For more than 30 years the growth in world trade has improved lives and lifted billions out of poverty. The threat to this growth is more important to the UK than most, particularly post Brexit.
To protect our economic future, we should start by abandoning the UK’s air quarantine rules in favour of a more focused airport testing regime. All passengers are required to quarantine for 14 days unless they have come from a country designated as “safe” by the Foreign Office. Yet there is no evidence that the guidelines are rational. Why can we fly to Italy but not to countries like Singapore, the UAE and Hong Kong, where the disease has largely been brought under control?
The quarantine rules are choking off our economic recovery, do little to prevent the spread of the disease, and they are practically unenforceable, whatever level of fine Whitehall sets.
There is no empirical justification for quarantining so many people for so long who do not have the disease. By introducing airport testing we will be able to cut quarantine to less than five days, increase passenger confidence and boost economic activity. By only requiring those who actually have the virus to quarantine, we are likely to see much more compliance by the public.
Conservatives campaigned together last December to stand up to well-intentioned but ultimately damaging and counter-productive government interventions in the way we live our lives. Almost every other country in the world is testing at airports so that their economies can re-start. Adopting the most burdensome intervention possible rather than the obvious one that is staring ministers in the face is an act of national self-harm.
Quarantining is relatively easy for those with jobs that allow them to work from home. But for our nurses, factory workers, garage workers, teachers and other public servants, it is crippling. Their voices and their economic wellbeing must be put at the heart of this debate.
Tax increases would be crippling to my less well-off constituents. We have an economic depression that we cannot spend or tax our way out of, as we have already incurred unsustainable levels of debt.
Tempting though it may be for the Treasury, now is not the time to raise taxes on our hard-working constituents who have already had to live through six months of economic hardship. We will not recover from the pandemic by taxing British people and businesses to the hilt. We need to focus on becoming more competitive and to open our economy to investment, not to pursue interventionist and distortive fiscal measures.
Furthermore, as argued in the excellent GENN report by Shanker Singham, Lars Karlsson and Daniel Gottschald, countries wishing to bounce back from their self-imposed economic coma must reject isolationism and protectionism, re-discover their appetite for free trade and markets and allow the private sector to grow the economy for us.
Their report highlights the importance of Prosperity Zones (“PZs”) and Advanced Special Economic Zones (ASEZs), such as freeports in the UK, in helping the marketplace to flourish. The impact of Covid makes the freeport agenda more urgent than ever and we must rapidly accelerate it if we are to recover from today’s economic devastation.
Freeports would allow the UK to become a global leader in good governance, they could become cyber hubs of a post-Brexit foreign economic policy, regulatory sandboxes for fintech products, banking products, and for energy and transportation regulation where anti-competitive government restraints operate. They could ease planning restrictions to free up development, and freeports like Foyle Port could be used to build on Northern Ireland’s potential role as an export platform.
Now is the time to make the case for free trade and free and competitive markets. Millions of people did not vote to leave the EU and take back control in order to become an inward looking nation, pursuing protectionist policies and harming the world’s poorest economies as well as our own.
There is a whole world of global growth out there that can help us recover from the pandemic through free trade deals and ensuring our regulatory environment is as pro-competitive as it can be.
So with our new powers of parliamentary scrutiny, let’s embrace free trade and competitive markets, quickly bring in airport testing and stop blanket quarantining whole sections of the travelling population. This will do so much more to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, give confidence to businesses and start the free flow of goods and services around the world again, allowing us to kickstart the global economy before it is too late.