Friday 25 September 2020 6:00 am

Who speaks for business? Government advice in a crisis

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

It has been another week of regulations and restrictions, another round of measures to try to beat the Covid-19 spread which has started to creep up again as we move into autumn.

On Monday, the government sent its top boffins, Professor Chris Whitty and Professor Sir Patrick Vallance, to face the press unchaperoned. This, surely, was the ultimate expression of Downing Street’s dedication to “following the science”: here are our brightest scientific minds, the gesture seemed to say. We have put our faith in them, and we ask you to do the same.

In the end, the changes announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday — the “rule of six”, a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, smaller groups at weddings — were relatively minor, certainly not the draconian assault on personal liberty which some had feared (and some, one felt, had secretly craved). There is still much to concern business, especially the hospitality sector, but Boris Johnson has yet to hit the nuclear button.

The idea that the government “follows the science” is, of course, a lie. It doesn’t. It takes the science into account, but it does not bow slavishly to what the experts say. Take alcohol, for example: if government policy had a purely scientific basis, the hard stuff would be banned straight away.

Alcohol kills almost 10,000 people a year, and causes countless other health problems, not to mention the psychological and social toll it takes — and it is an entirely unnecessary product. No-one needs to consume it. But government policy, balancing advice from different quarters and taking into account individual freedom and choice, allows it to be sold under licence. The same is true of cigarettes, which cannot be smoked in most public areas and are taxed heavily to disincentivise smoking. But they are not, in themselves, banned.

So the supremacy of scientific advice is an illusion, and for very good reasons. The purpose of government is to make policy decisions based on all the information available to them, but tempered too by the ideological stance which saw them elected in the first place. Out of this machine into which we feed all our likes and dislikes, as well as hard data, come decisions which are supposed to be broadly acceptable to the electorate.

Nevertheless, some advice is more equal than others. Professors Whitty and Vallance have become minor celebrities during the pandemic, which is hardly surprising. But where are the other sources of advice? For business owners and entrepreneurs, where is their champion, the advocate of their interests? Such a thing exists, of course: Alex Hickman, the Prime Minister’s special adviser on business.

Mr Hickman is simpatico with his boss. He was chief executive of Business for Sterling, founded the Open Europe think tank and worked on the Vote Leave campaign. He was appointed to his Downing Street role in March, as Covid-19 took hold, with a specific brief to “repair” relations between government and business, which had deteriorated after Johnson took office.

We can only hope that Hickman is bending his boss’s ear in private as decisions are made about how far lockdown restrictions should go. Business desperately needs to be represented at the table, and if the Prime Minister is uneasy with the Remainerish CBI, then he needs at least to hear what his special adviser is (presumably) saying.

It is an extraordinary thing when one worries about how little influence the business world wields with a Conservative government. But these are strange times. Perhaps we need Hickman to speak up a bit more, show his face to the world, and reassure those who will generate the economic growth the UK needs so badly that they are being heard. 

It’s not “the economy, stupid” any more than we “follow the science”. Everything should be weighed and evaluated. But that advice should be given. To borrow from times gone by, “Speak for business, Alex!”

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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