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It could be that the expected deployment of Coronavirus vaccines next year will weaken the opposition of Conservative MPs to further lockdowns.

For without them, Government policy is set to swing between winter shutdowns and summer loosenings – at least, until test and trace works much better than it does now, or herd immunity is reached (if that is possible), or the potency of the virus lessens.

So the prospect of their use is widely seen, rightly or wrongly, as light at the end of the tunnel.  One might have thought that Tory MPs would be willing to sit out a few more months of lockdowns, or at least a tougher tier system, confident in the expectation that those viruses will soon be at work.

We have to say that if there is a swing in backbench sentiment back towards further tight restrictions, at least for a while, there’s no sign of it that we can detect, at least yet – as Charlotte Gill reported on this site recently.

One senior lockdown opponent set out the reasoning of many of his colleagues.  It isn’t clear yet what vaccines will be available when, he said.  Nor is it evident how long they will give immunity for.  Or if they will work for people of all ages.  But above all, it’s a question of timing: “shutdowns for a few more weeks are a different matter from shutdowns for few more months,” ConHome told.  “You can do a lot of damage to the economy in a few months.”

So the stage is set for more Parliamentary turbulence if, as some health professionals would like, Ministers propose that this lockdown be succeeded by revised and more restrictive tiers.  Or if a Christmas relaxation for a few days is followed by a New Year clampdown of more, and so on.  In particular, backbench critics of lockdown appear to have settled on demanding a cost-benefit analysis of the effects of restrictions on lives and livelihoods – including other healthcare outcomes as well as economic outcomes.

Readers will remember that this site has been pushing for such an analysis for some time, though it would inevitably also have to consider the effects of Coronavirus itself (for example: the effects of voluntary social distancing, unmandated by government, on economic growth).

Which takes us to Mel Stride, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, interviewed recently on this site – who pointed out in the Commons last month that SAGE itself has said that “policy makers will need to consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms alongside this epidemiological assessment”.

That’s a quote from a set of its minutes, which continued “this work is underway under the auspices of the Chief Economist” – Clare Lombardelli.

The committee has rightly been asking to know how this work is going, and what conclusions it has reached.  The Treasury response is that it doesn’t undertake predictions or forecasts.

This is to answer a question that the committee isn’t asking.  It doesn’t want to know if there’s a forecast.  It wants to know if there’s analysis.  To which end, have a look at this transcript and this video of a recent oral evidence session of the committee, in which one of the witnesses was…Lombardelli.

By our count, Stride presses her no fewer than 15 times in seeking to find out: where is this analysis “of economic impacts and the associated harms”?  The Chief Economist’s stock response is to repeat the Chancellor’s: that it doesn’t undertake predictions or forecasts.  It is undistilled Yes Minister.  Stride comes back each time, in essence, to press the question on her.

Stride, who was briefly Leader of the House under Theresa May, is scarcely a backbench recalcitrant or natural rebel.  But he’s clearly determined to do his job properly.  Make of the video what you will, but our reading of it is that Lombardelli has been briefed to the gunwhales (not that she will necessarily have needed to be) under no circumstances to say plainly that such analysis exists.

By the end of her evidence, Stride had wrung the following form of words out of the Chief Economist. “Work considering the impact of the virus and the restrictions on the economy is under way. Work that is looking at predictions or forecasts of the impact of specific restrictions does not exist, as the Chancellor said last week.”  The committee has again called for the analysis to be published.

There will be resistance in the Treasury to sharing its thinking widely, and also to publishing what would undoubtedly be work that contains to bad economic news.  But there is clearly a wider consideration in which Downing Street will presumably have been active – namely, that the Government really, really doesn’t want to hand those backbench lockdown opponents ammunition to fire back at it.

28 comments for: The Coronavirus – and the mysterious affair of the Treasury’s economic analysis

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