From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: Having Babies

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.