July 29. A Minister of Health, Nadine Dorries, is reported as speculating that nine months on from the start of the lockdown there will be a bulge in business in the nation’s maternity units.
Should we take her seriously? There are two levels of response to this question.
The first is ad personam. This is the same Nadine Dorries whose first book, published in 2014, was described by the Daily Telegraph reviewer as ‘the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years. Only with imaginative effort might some readers of a mawkish disposition like The Four Streets. A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’ Undeterred, she appears to have written another fourteen novels, all of the same quality. In the meantime she earned a reputation in Parliament, as an especially thoughtless, publicity-seeking Brexiteer, opposed to gay marriages and abortion counselling. So it was when Johnson came to form his ministry-of-almost-no-talents, she was appointed a Minister in what would become the key Government Department for responding to the pandemic. Here she distinguished herself by becoming the very first MP to be infected with Covid-10, getting diagnosed on the same day she attended a reception with the Prime Minister at Number 10.
Then there is the scientific evidence. Studies beginning with the 1889 flu epidemic in France and the 1918-19 global Spanish flue pandemic have long established that birth rates tend to fall rather than rise after a medical crisis.* This applies also to natural disasters like major earthquakes. In the case of our current event, in a recent study people under 35 living in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were asked whether they intended to have children this year. Between 60 and 80% of respondents replied that they were postponing or abandoning altogether such a decision.
The reason for this caution is not hard to find. Parents seek as much security as possible for the early years of child-rearing. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, every forecaster is predicting the worst economic recession since as far back as records exist. The only question is about the speed of recovery. It is recognised that the aftermath of the 1918-19 pandemic, compounded by the Slump of 1929, depressed birth rates in Britain throughout the inter-war period.
What is different this time is the demographic context. I have always felt vaguely guilty that my three children have been a contribution to the unsustainable rise in the global population. Since 1970 the number of people on the planet has almost doubled to the current figure of 7.8bn and was thought to heading to 11bn by the end of the century. Now a new study by Washington University is predicting that the peak will be reached in 2064 and will be followed by a major fall in most populations outside Africa, with a halving in countries such as Japan and Spain.** In Britain the Office for National Statistics reports a 12.2% fall in the birth rate since 2012, giving a reproduction rate of 1.65 per woman, well below the level needed to maintain current numbers.
If these projections are even distantly accurate, they pose a major threat to the sustainability of modern economies. The old will no longer have enough people of working age to pay for their pensions and their health care. The long-term remedy will involve major changes in the notion of what a ‘working age’ is. Mine may be the last generation ever fully to retire.
In the short term there are only two solutions in the UK. Increase the birth rate by attacking child poverty, restoring Sure Start, improving nursery provision, reversing reductions in per-capita educational funding.
Or increase immigration. Not a policy favoured by Nadine Dorries.
* A. Aassvel, et al, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic and human fertility’ Science, vol. 369, issue 6502, 24 Jul 2020, pp. 370-1
** Stein Emil Vollset et al, ‘Fertility, Mortality, Migration and Population Scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’, Lancet,July 14, 2020.