Posts Tagged ‘British and Irish Politics and Policy’

COVID-19 and childcare: why many nurseries will struggle to weather the storm

Helen Penn, Antonia Simon, and Eva Lloyd explain why nurseries are struggling to cope with the costs of the ongoing pandemic. They write that, as in many other areas, the crisis highlights the effects of years of austerity on the sector.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, all nurseries, like schools, have been ordered to shut. They can only stay open to admit vulnerable children or children of key workers. The problem is that the UK has many kinds of nursery and childcare provision, funded and delivered in different ways. So the impact of this measure on children, parents, and staff, will vary according to the type of nursery. In particular, if the nursery is run as a business, there are very real threats of permanent closure, if the nursery gets into debt.

Some early childhood care and education is provided by state schools, but most is provided by private day nurseries. Nursery education is free to parents in state nursery classes which are attached to schools or in freestanding state nursery schools. Staff in state nurseries are employees and will get paid by the local authority, whether or not their place of work is open. Like schools, state nursery provision will be able to re-open after the crisis is over.

But state nursery classes and nursery schools are mostly part-time, and do not take children under the age of three. So, parents who are working frequently use private day nurseries, for which they must pay a weekly fee, which may be as high as £80 per day. There are some government childcare subsidies towards this fee, both education and childcare subsidies, but the subsidies available rarely cover the cost of fees, because around 70% of private nurseries charge for extras over and above the government allowance.

Our ongoing research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is showing that there are many kinds of private nurseries. Around half of the private day nursery places available are provided by big financialised chains, who have had aggressive expansion plans to buy out and take over smaller nurseries, and at any given time, there are many such transactions in process. In addition, around 13% of the childcare market is international, foreign nursery chains either buying into the UK, or UK-based chains operating in other countries. So childcare is a volatile market with uncertain boundaries. Are foreign investors required to follow our rules? What happens to all those deals in the offing?

There are also considerable staffing issues in the private nursery sector. Around half of all employees in the big chains and many in smaller companies are on apprenticeship schemes, which have proved a cheap way of offering employment. It is not clear what employment status such apprentices have. Recent research suggests that many nursery staff are employed at less than the minimum wage, with minimal work-related benefits. Private nursery businesses, like other businesses, may try to access new government loan schemes, and take advantage of the offer to fund 80% of salary costs. But if staff salaries are already very low, or below the minimum wage, 80% of salary costs is in effect a starvation wage.

In this situation, nurseries in England are struggling to find strategies to recoup income. The website advice from the big companies changes almost daily. One particularly big chain, Just Childcare, on their website asked parents to continue paying fees even though the nurseries were shut, although they now appear to have retracted this, and their justification for asking for fees is no longer available online. Bright Horizons, another large chain, at first attempted to position itself as the go-to company to provide childcare for key workers but are now instead offering webinars on managing the crisis. Busy Bees, the largest chain, have sent out a stream of letters to parents, advising them about openings and other pandemic-related issues. So it is not clear whether those parents still using the nurseries will have to pay the standard fees, or whether those not using the nurseries will still have to pay retainers. In Australia, for instance, the government has just made childcare free for those that need it.

The smaller nurseries, either stand alone or with a handful of nurseries in the company, are also extremely vulnerable. Their profit margins were very small, especially those who catered for vulnerable children and who were reliant on government childcare subsidies without top-ups from parents. Before the coronavirus crisis, the sector made frequent requests for higher subsidy allowances, and the rate of closures had been increasing, especially in deprived areas. Imminent failure threatens those nurseries whose insurance does not cover the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not clear how, or if, small nurseries will weather the storm. The relevant Minister, Vicky Ford, has issued a letter to early years and childcare providers in England pointing out that they will be entitled to the same financial support as other small businesses, and that the educational entitlement they may receive for children two, three and over will continue. But it is unclear whether this also applies to the childcare subsidies for working parents who cease to attend the nurseries. The government previously offered about £5.6billion in total to support early years and childcare, but this total encompassed a variety of separate and often ill-coordinated funds, and it is also not clear how much of it will continue if parents are not using the nurseries. The Minister does however say that she will engage with representative organisations in the sector to discuss options.

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that childcare is now much more visible to government and employers. It is being seen, as it wasn’t before, as an essential and integral part of the education and employment infrastructure. If many childcare businesses fail, this will have far-reaching consequences for economic recovery. The muddle and contradictions of the sector – the variations in access, the lack of coordination, the high costs, the poor wages and low levels of qualification, the inconsistent funding, and the lack of accountability – are being highlighted as never before. The early education and childcare system needs a complete overhaul. As in so many other areas, the pandemic has illustrated the effects of austerity and neglect over many years. Let’s hope we can learn from it.


About the Authors

Helen Penn is Professor Emeritus at the University of East London and Visiting Professor at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education.



Antonia Simon is programme lead for the MSc Systematic Reviews for Social Policy and Practice at UCL. She is currently leading a research project which aims to analyse the impact and reach of private sector childcare in England (funded by the Nuffield Foundation). 


Eva Lloyd is Professor of Early Childhood Cass School of Education and Communities and Director International Centre for the Study of the Mixed Economy of Childcare at the University of East London.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Kristin Brown on Unsplash.

COVID-19 airport slot rules: what’s changed and what’s next for European airlines?

Steven Truxal explains why and how the rules governing slot allocation in European airports were amended in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He explains the implications of these changes for airlines, and concludes that air passenger rights may soon need to be amended as well.

The outbreak of COVID-19 triggered a sharp decrease in demand for air travel around the world. At the same time, many states closed their borders or took other actions to restrict movements of air travellers. Despite this, some airlines have, until very recently, continued to operate virtually empty aircraft. True, an airline operating an empty flight seems absurd; it is expensive not to mention harmful to the environment. So, what has incentivised airlines to do it? How have the COVID-19 airport slot rules, which entered into force on 1 April 2020, changed this, and what’s next for Europe’s airlines?

Airlines meet twice-yearly at worldwide slot conferences hosted by the International Air Transport Association: in June to deal with the (northern hemisphere) winter period and in November to review the summer period. Since 1947, airlines have met to discuss their airport slot allocations for the next season and explore ‘interline’ opportunities. An interline (agreement) between two or more airlines allows for a passenger to reserve flights in a single flight itinerary, which may be operated by multiple airlines. For instance, one books a trip from London to Bangkok, the segment London-Copenhagen is operated by British Airways and Copenhagen-Bangkok is flown by SAS Scandinavian Airlines.

Airlines require slots to use airport infrastructure, including runway permissions to land and take off. Demand for air travel increased dramatically after airline markets in the UK and the rest of Europe were deregulated and liberalised, and in particular with the growth of low-cost carriers. With that said, the expansion of necessary airport infrastructure has not always kept pace with demand; in turn, many airports have become congested, and airport slots are in scarce supply.

How does slot allocation work in practice?

Where capacity to access airport infrastructure exists, a ‘slot coordinator’ will allocate a series of slots from the ‘slot pool’ to an applicant airline. According to Regulation 95/93 governing European airports, an airline must operate the allocated series of slots for at least 80% of the time during the season for which it has been allocated. This is commonly referred to as the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ or ‘80/20 rule’. Subject to this rule, which is enforced by the coordinator, slots are re-allocated with established historical precedence, ‘grandfather rights’, to incumbent air carriers.

If slots are not available, airlines may exchange slots for money or other consideration. Swaps at UK airports have been especially prevalent; the legality of which was clarified in 2008. In 2017, International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, purchased airport slots from collapsed carrier Monarch Airlines for £60 million. Airport slots are valuable economic resources, so airlines are incentivised to keep hold of them – at whatever cost.

So, even in the face of COVID-19 and great economic uncertainty, airlines will continue to fly empty aircraft for fear that failing to operate for at least 80% the current season will mean that the slots will be returned to the slot pool and next season’s slots will be lost to them. That is, unless and until the rules are changed.

COVID-19 slot rules

By 2003, experience had shown that Regulation 95/93 needed strengthening through necessary amendments so as ‘to ensure the fullest and most flexible use of limited capacity at congested airports’. The following change was introduced to the slot pool provision in Article 10(4):

If the 80 % usage of the series of slots cannot be demonstrated, all the slots constituting that series shall be placed in the slot pool, unless the non-utilisation can be justified on the basis of any of the following reasons:

(a) unforeseeable and unavoidable circumstances outside the air carrier’s control leading to:

  • grounding of the aircraft type generally used for the air service in question;
  • closure of an airport or airspace;
  • serious disturbance of operations at the airports concerned, including those series of slots at other Community airports related to routes which have been affected by such disturbance, during a substantial part of the relevant scheduling period;

Whereas Article 10(4) allows slot coordinators to disregard non-operation of airport slots for periods during which the air carrier is unable to operate planned air services due to unforeseeable situations, such as closure of airports or an airspace, it does not address the novel situation of the COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, it was essential to amend Regulation 95/93 once again.

On 13 March 2020, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the much-sought change to the 80/20 rule. Under the new COVID-19 slot rules, which came into force on 1 April 2020 via amending legislation Regulation (EU) 2020/459, the 80/20 rule is suspended temporarily in the period between 1 March 2020 and 24 October 2020.

Suspension of the 80/20 rule is not unprecedented. In fact, Regulation 95/93 was amended so as temporarily to suspend the 80/20 rule following the events of 11 September 2001, during the Iraq war, during the SARS epidemic in 2003, and after the 2008/2009 Financial Crisis.

So that the European Commission may respond more quickly in future if necessary, the European Parliament and the European Council have conferred on it the power to adopt delegated acts with respect to the 80/20 rule until 2 April 2021. The Commission will monitor the situation using the new criteria, and will present a summary report to European Parliament and Council by 15 September 2020.

What’s next for Europe’s airlines?

Airlines already began to withdraw services on some routes following Von der Leyen’s announcement. Now that the new slot rules have entered into force, more cancellations are expected. UK-registered EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet; British Airways has suspended all of its London Gatwick flights; and London City Airport has closed. At the time of writing, air navigation service provider Eurocontrol reports a 86.9% drop in European air traffic.

While the new slot rules certainly bring good news for airlines as they cancel flights yet keep the slots, this is only the first hurdle. EU air passenger rights legislation requires all EU airlines and any airline operating from an EU airport to offer a passenger of a flight which has been cancelled the opportunity to re-book or receive full refund within seven days. Yet passengers who have requested refunds have instead been offered flight vouchers. The European Commission published new Interpretive Guidelines on 18 March 2020, which clarify that for flight cancellations owing to COVID-19, “If the carrier proposes a voucher, this offer cannot affect the passenger’s right to opt for reimbursement instead.” Overcoming or securing changes to the high-level of protection afforded to passengers by European consumer protection rules will be airlines’ second hurdle… Stay tuned.


About the Author

Steven Truxal is Reader in Law and Associate Dean (International) at City, University of London.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by pixpoetry on Unsplash.


Bringing in the experts: blame deflection and the COVID-19 crisis

The current political emphasis on ‘the experts’ is partly a depoliticisation and blame deflection strategy to render them, instead of the politicians, as the public face of the coronavirus crisis, write Matthew Flinders and Gergana Dimova.

‘People in this country have had enough of experts,’ Michael Gove (in)famously declared as part of the assault on ‘the establishment’ and ‘elites’ that formed such a central element of the Leave campaign and Brexit. And yet now many key members of that campaign seemed to have adopted a very different strategic position. Instead of deriding and distancing the experts, the government is now hugging them close.

The frailties of evidence-based policy, or what is now more often termed ‘evidence-led’ policy, have been well-documented within the social sciences. The rational, technocratic, data-driven recommendations of the scientists will at some point fall upon the procrustean realities of frequently irrational and commonly dysfunctional political life. And yet one of the defining performative elements of the coronavirus crisis is the daily reports of the Prime Minister or senior ministers at which they are flanked both figuratively and literally by ‘the experts’. No message, statement or utterance can be made by a representative of the government without being foreshadowed and subsequently enmeshed within the golden phrase that is ‘following the expert advice we are receiving’.

In some countries a new public service bargain seems to have emerged whereby the politicians depart the stage to an almost total extent and let the experts become the public face of the crisis. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, Fernando Simón, the head of health emergency centre in Spain, Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Charité hospital in Germany and Jérôme Salomon, head of the national health authority in France have emerged as some of the most visible faces of the response to the pandemic. It’s ‘the experts’ that are now the household names.

So how can we understand this sudden shift from loathing the experts to loving them?

Unlike dealing with the coronavirus crisis itself, the answer to this question is refreshingly simple. The pandemic is a toxic issue for all politicians: not just in the sense of the epidemiology of the crisis and its public health implications but also because the nature of politics means that at the end of the day someone will be scapegoated and blamed for the crisis. Scapegoating, finger-pointing, arse-covering and the emergence of blame games (and blame boomerangs) are one of the few predictions that anyone can make about the current crisis with any certainty.

From appearing as external annoyances offering unhelpful facts as they did to those promoting leaving the European Union, the experts now offer political cover. That is, potentially the most beautiful blame-shifting political bullet-catching safety net ever built around today’s politicians but like spiders building a web the beauty veils a deeper predatory aspect. Bringing in the experts and hugging them close is a politicized form of self-preservation strategy that might (and it is a rather dubious ‘might’) afford politicians some distance from direct culpability when things go wrong.

And they will go wrong. Coping with crises demands an agility, speed and ambition that public bureaucracies are generally not denied to deliver. Decisions will have to be taken on the basis of imperfect information, in an emotional context, by exhausted individuals who are well aware they are dealing with matters of life and death. Politics is a brutal game. It’s not for the faint-hearted and at some point every politician and official knows that they will have to provide an account of each and every decision they made. And yet post-crisis accountability and scrutiny frameworks are rarely concerned with lesson-learning and a balanced review of the facts, and are more accurately viewed as blame-allocation processes where ‘gotcha!’ is the favorite phrase and scalp-hunting the favourite game.

The contemporary visibility and political emphasis on ‘the experts’ is therefore a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is completely rational to heed the advice of those who have dedicated their professional lives to understanding and protecting public health; on the other hand, it is also a depoliticisation strategy in the sense that politicians who have dedicated their professional lives to not going MAD (i.e. falling foul of ‘multiple accountabilities disorder’) will understand the benefit of allowing ‘the experts’ to become the public face of the crisis.

Letting others take the stage and assume the position of lightning-rods when blame-laden storm clouds are amassing on the horizon is a political strategy that dates back to Machiavelli’s advice on blame-avoidance behaviours, and probably much further. But the bigger question is really whether ‘the experts’ quite understand the politics of the role they have been cast?


About the Authors

Matthew Flinders (@politicalspike) is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.



Gergana Dimova is convener of the Anti-Politics Specialist Group of the UK Political Science Association and Lecturer at the University of Winchester.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: No.10 on Flickr under a CC-BY-NC-ND licence.

COVID-19 and gender-blind responses: key policies adopted across the UK and EU put many women at risk

Katerina Mantouvalou surveys three common policy responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak. She explains why there is an urgent need to incorporate a gender analysis into both the development and implementation of such policies, as they currently put certain groups of women at risk.

With over half of the world’s population under lockdown and much of the global economy at a standstill, it is legitimate to ask whether the policies adopted to tackle COVID-19 give equal consideration to the health, economic, and wider societal needs of both women and men. I analyse three policies that have been adopted widely across EU Member States and beyond and argue that policymakers need to adopt a more subtle response that considers the different needs of women and men in these unprecedented circumstances.

  1. Stay at home orders increase the risk of domestic violence

Governments around the globe have issued ‘Stay at home’ orders to their citizens in response to COVID-19. ‘Rester à la maison’, ‘Quedate en casa’, ‘Restiamo a casa’, ‘Μένουμε σπίτι’, ‘Zostań w domu’ – all relay the same, most common piece of advice given to EU citizens by their governments to protect themselves and their national health systems from the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, an increasing number of organisations stress that this advice puts the life of domestic violence victims, who are predominantly women, at risk. While reliable data are not widely available, it is commonly accepted that in the time of COVID-19, being quarantined with an abusive partner poses greater risks, and victim support appears to be inadequate. A threefold increase in domestic violence cases has already been recorded in China. Charities and police forces across the UK and the US have been warning of a potential rise in cases of domestic and intimate partner violence.

As attention is currently focused on curbing the public health crisis, the problem of domestic violence risks being overlooked by authorities and the general ‘stay at home’ advice puts women’s lives at risk. A more nuanced response is needed that takes women’s specific situations into consideration. This should include explicit acknowledgement that domestic abuse victims are ‘still allowed to leave home to seek help’, that ‘essential services’ provided to women victims will continue to operate and that domestic violence professionals are recognised as key workers performing essential services, so that they can continue to support victims through their day-to-day work.

  1. School and nursery closures increase the risk of poverty, especially for lone mothers

On 23 March, schools in the UK closed. Similar polices have been adopted across Europe to halt the spread of the virus in educational settings. While this was considered an essential measure, it does raise questions about how to mitigate its impact on working parents, many of whom already struggle to combine work and family responsibilities. It is a well-established fact that women are the primary caregivers for children and dependent adults. Women are significantly more likely than men to work part-time to take care of children or dependant adults.

While part-time work arrangements often provide much-needed flex­ibility to working parents, they are also linked to lower pay, and unavoidably increase women’s risk of poverty. Specific sub-groups, such as lone parents, the vast majority of whom are women, are at a greater risk of poverty when options for formal childcare are unavailable because they are not able to work their normal contractual hours. According to 2018 data, having children increases the risk of poverty for lone parents across the EU. According to Eurostat, in 2018 45.2% of lone par­ents were at risk of poverty or social exclusion compared with 17% of households with two adults and two children.

While official data are not available on the percentage of employees by sex and household status who reduced their working hours to take care of dependents during this period, it is reasonable to expect that school closures will disproportionately affect women (especially lone mothers) unless more flexibility is afforded to them to combine work and childcare responsibilities. School closures and other measures to halt the spread of the virus could last six months; to protect the most vulnerable individuals with caring responsibilities from such measures, there is a need to provide flexible work arrangements and other support measures to working parents, especially lone mothers. For example, governments could include lone parents in the list of personnel who can still send children to school or introduce a statutory right to pay for time off taken to care for children under these exceptional circumstances. This would allow employees to more effectively combine their work and childcare responsibilities.

  1. Working from home increases the risk of unemployment for working mothers and pregnant women

A third, widely adopted policy to halt the spread of the virus is ‘working from home’. Governments have encouraged businesses and workplaces to allow their employees to work from home, unless it is impossible for them to do so. The question arises of whether employers are equally willing to provide this flexibility to male and female employees. In particular, two groups appear to be at risk of discrimination because of poor implementation of this measure: mothers with school-age children and pregnant women.

According to a 2016 survey conducted on behalf of the UK government, 77% of mothers said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, or on return from maternity leave, while 11% reported they felt forced to leave their job, either because they were dismissed, were made compulsorily redundant, or felt so poorly treated that they had to resign. 20% of respondents also reported experiencing harassment or negative comments related to pregnancy or flexible working from their employer or colleagues, while just over half (51%) who had a flexible working request approved said they felt it resulted in negative consequences.

Organisations providing legal advice and support to parents and employers of mothers with school-age children point out that the situation is exacerbated by the current COVID-19 measures. They argue that employers are less willing to allow mothers with school-age children to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic than their male counterparts. Representatives of legal advice lines in the UK have also recorded cases of pregnant women being made redundant while male employees are not subject to the same measures, and others have been asked to work in the office despite being categorised as a vulnerable group in the UK government guidance.

Cases of discrimination against working mothers and pregnant women are another unintentional consequence of governments’ efforts to halt the spread of the virus. To reduce the risk, governments should remind employers that they could be exposing themselves to sex discrimination cases if they do not apply the measures in an equitable manner to male and female employees.

To sum up, there is an urgent need to incorporate a gender analysis into both the development and implementation of COVID-19 policy responses. Organisations are raising alarm bells about the risks that gender-blind policies have on women, particularly those belonging to potentially vulnerable groups. The European Institute for Gender Equality will soon publish a webpage with more information about the coronavirus pandemic from a gender perspective. Others have called on governments to learn from gender analysis of past outbreaks to ensure that interventions affect women and men equitably. Governments should listen to them before further damage is done.


About the Author

Katerina Mantouvalou is a Director leading ICF’s research, evaluation and analytical services in the areas of gender equality and human rights for the European Commission and its agencies, the World Bank, and the United Nations (UN). Katerina has a Ph.D. in Political Science from University College London.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

COVID-19: how the UK’s economic model contributes towards a mismanagement of the crisis

Carolina Alves and Farwa Sial discuss the efficiency of the UK’s economic response to the COVID-19 crisis and explain why it does not directly support households but companies.

The global market gyrations since February 2020 have fed on a simultaneous supply and demand shock as well as crude oil price war. This is not a 2007-8 style financial crisis and there is no doubt that its impact is directly linked to disturbances in the circulation of capital: the stock market crash, rise in corporate debt, decline of the aviation and tourism industries, and the blow to the retail industry being some manifestations. However, the morbidity is not simply linked to the virus and the forced break in economies around the world, but to a multifaceted and contradictory historical process of how regulation escaped capitalism in the 21st century.

Since the 1970s, capitalism has undergone significant changes regarding production and distribution of value. Despite different and often contested approaches looking into these changes, a more prominent role for capital gains, fee incomes and, more broadly, rent-seeking behaviour is hardly denied. This shift has been described through various dimensions including heightened speculation in the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors, financialisation of non-financial spheres, and the emergence of new rentier classes. At the heart of this process we saw predatory value extraction and increase in inequality, which in turn has been enabled by the reinforcement of market fundamentalism and mechanisms that have led to the hollowing of states and institutions.

Although many regulations were implemented and redesigned since the 2007-8 crisis, aggressive risk-taking and moral hazard, which marked the foundations of the crisis, did not simply evaporate but have been extended and socialised in many different ways. Late capitalism rests on the ease to transcend institutions because the checks and balances which regulated profit accumulation during the post-WWII era are no longer in place. The hollowing of state has been accompanied by both allegedly neutral ‘technocratic bureaucracies’ and an absence of development indicators such as class mobility and welfarism.

Within this context, the expertise of epidemiologists to contain the virus may be more successful if accompanied by systemic reforms to address the imbalances resulting from the current structure of rentier extraction that, explicitly or implicitly, hinder policies aimed at common good.

Let’s consider, for example, the surge in demand for some products due to reasons including hoarding on an individual and corporate level. The supply side of this story may be facing input price rise, like pharmaceutical companies raising prices on essential drugs citing a halt in the import of raw materials from India and China. However, the current context may also give rise to exploitative practices. Either way, the most financially vulnerable will feel this cost in a time of illness, and their perception may exacerbate surges in demand (including hoarding) – especially in a system which is not prepared to challenge unexpected increases in production costs.

The Competition and Markets Authority issued a statement to ensure that companies should not engage in exploitative practices at the expense of customers. Yet this statement is effectively no better than a non-legally binding code of conduct, with no punitive consequences for unscrupulous market participants. This state of affairs is representative of a wider trend across UK regulatory and supervisory authorities, which short of litigation, have tended to merely deal with failures in consumer protections with toothless platitudes.

Rescue economic packages: how efficient?

The gravity of the current crisis has led governments to implement ambitious stimulus packages to revive the economy. Economists and policymakers have intensely scrutinised these packages. A very peculiar point cutting across some of these criticisms, however, lies within the need to focus on households and workers. In the case of the UK, the rescue package does not empower or directly support households but companies. Its measure for the most part expressly targets businesses with VAT and other tax holidays or deferrals, interest rates cuts, and various other kinds of operational assistance. Even when the approach deals with the workforce – for example, the scheme offering up to 80% of an employee’s wage – it has been geared towards the objective of business continuity, with no focus or conditionalities aiming at precluding a class of zero-hours contract employees to follow, keeping employed as many workers as possible, and enabling them to make productive contributions.

Part of the intention behind this scheme, recently extended to the self-employed, is both to prevent a lapse in consumption and stave off the attendant insolvencies, company voluntary arrangements, and business failures that might originate thereof. In this respect, this scheme is comparable to an extent with the approaches following the 2008 crisis, where a number of financial innovations and measures were introduced with the specific aim to improve the supply of credit to the real economy. But, as history showed us, the availability of such credit did not translate to the expected ‘trickle down’ to either consumers or businesses, as the recipient institutions remained averse to lending (even to each other), protecting themselves. With a faith on businesses rather than financial institutions, in the current case, the wage scheme is to be sought from the government by the employer rather than by the employee, with no explicit mechanism to either avoid firms acting solely for their own benefit (for example, Virgin Atlantic upon seeking a £7.5bn bailout from the government are simultaneously demanding that their employees should forego remuneration for eight weeks) or ensure binding regulation to guarantee employment (see, for example, Wetherspoons which laid off 43,000 workers).

It can’t be emphasised enough that the current pandemic is neither simply a crisis of supply or demand, but a disruption of labour supply followed by unusual shock slowing down demand for some services and goods even when most of the people are still holding their jobs or being monetarily compensated for not being at work. For this reason, although households within economic analysis are usually understood from the lenses of consumption, it seems that now stimulus or reform packages have to be tailored to not only spur demand (at the right moment) and keep businesses alive, but ensure that a complete breakdown of the system due to the need to ‘de-mobilise’ the economy is avoidable.

In this sense, much more needs to be done assuming a more central role in the economic analysis for households. We ought to include measures that look into issues ranging from childcare and elderly care, direct and quick monetary transfers to levels of debt and precarity of employment. This focus is particularly important considering that the weakening of the state in the UK has been accompanied by the austerity policies and misallocation of resources resulting from the privatisation of healthcare.

While alternative measures such as universal income and ‘helicopter money‘ have been criticised on the basis of the amount of money transfer and duration of uncertainty linked to the crisis, the efficacy of both proposals lies in protecting households. This protection, whatever its format, is what we need now, and it should be followed by radical changes in a way we see, understand, and perceive inequality, vulnerability, and class – in the same way that the implementation of the welfare state in the 1940s followed both a radical change in how poverty was perceived after WWII and the acknowledgment of the need for a comprehensive welfare system as a duty of the state. If we will use the war analogy to understand and solve the COVID-19 crisis, this is definitely the main (and perhaps the only) reason to do so.

So, what next?

As others have advocated, a reform/stimulus package has to be a comprehensive intervention which ensures protection for ordinary people. In the absence of a vaccine, the ‘economic contagion’ needed to keep the economy afloat can only work if people are both immobilized and financially secure. The current model of capitalism and its response to crisis is not only inadequate, it continues to fail in protecting the most vulnerable and assuring safety for households. A systematic transformation, which leaves institutions better prepared to deal with crises, can only start with addressing the basic question of unequal distribution and reorienting economic policy from a common good perspective. The UK has a historic opportunity to rethink its economic model: regulation must be strengthened and transformed in favour of the public.


Note: the authors are grateful to Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven and Ilias Alami for helpful comments.

About the Authors

Carolina Alves (@cacrisalves) is Joan Robinson Research Fellow in Heterodox Economics at Girton College, University of Cambridge.




Farwa Sial (@farwasial) is a post-doctoral researcher working on the ESID Project at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash.

COVID-19: Time to reduce the prison population in England and Wales

Nasrul Ismail writes that the poor health of prisoners, together with the poor living conditions found in prisons, put this population at an increased risk of COVID-19. He argues that suspending short sentences and providing for the early release of certain prisoners will allow the government to manage the potential magnitude of the issue.

The turn of the new decade saw global society enter what has been described as the “worst public health crisis for a generation”. The novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed governments into rapidly developing unprecedented measures in order to contain the spread of the virus. These responses all have something in common: prioritising the protection of vulnerable individuals with underlying health conditions. Yet although meeting the ‘vulnerable’ criterion, the prison population appears to have been side-lined from mainstream discussions.

Prisons as coronavirus incubators

Prisons, by their very nature, are isolated and contained. However, once they enter these institutions, infectious diseases spread rapidly. To date, at least nine prisons across England and Wales have registered confirmed cases of COVID-19, although the number is suspected to be higher; epidemiologists have predicted that six in ten detainees could become infected, with a death rate of 1% across the prison population being forecast.

Prisons are particularly susceptible to this coronavirus due to the poor health of their inhabitants. They are a prime target because of prisoners’ risky behaviours (e.g. smoking and drug-taking), being immunocompromised, and the presence of bloodborne viruses and tuberculosis. Environmental factors further intensify these problems. Even prior to COVID-19, overcrowded prisons had been detrimental to prisoners’ health. The latest statistics show that approximately 98% of adult prison places were in use and with prisoners living in close proximity to one another, the risk of transmitting pathogens is very high. Whilst suspected coronavirus cases were isolated, some individuals can spread infection even prior to developing symptoms. As such, outbreaks can spread easily – and rapidly – in overcrowded prisons.

The capability of prisons to fight coronavirus is affected by minimum standards of cleanliness and infection control compliance not being met. Furthermore, there are no plans to stop prisoner transfer between institutions in England and Wales.

How can governments ensure safe and secure prison environments during this pandemic without violating the rights of those in their care? To date, the policy response has resulted in restrictions of movement within and to prison establishments, prisoners’ activities being restricted to only shower, phones and exercise, and no social visits from friends and family members. Whilst these measures might be considered practical, prison riots in San Vittore prison in Milan, Unidad Penitenciaria in Argentina and La Modelo prison in Colombia indicate that they are unsustainable. The blanket restriction of movements and visits, as well as poor prison conditions, can also trigger fear and anxiety amongst prisoners.

A more viable and sustainable way to limit the spread of coronavirus in prisons is to reduce the current prison population. This requires the implementation of two proactive strategies: suspending short sentences and ordering the early release for older and female prisoners.

With regards to suspending short sentences, a key underlying fact is that England and Wales have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, despite recent decades of declining crime levels. The push towards longer sentences, in addition to the use of community sentences, has also contributed towards the high rate of imprisonment. Despite a shrinking budget (22% overall since 2010), prisons have been stretched to breaking point, and we are now reaping the consequences.

To reverse this trend requires new thinking and operational space by the government, for example moving the most vulnerable prisoners to less-crowded parts of the establishment, ‘cohorting’ (i.e. the gathering of potentially infected cases into a designated area), and reducing the extent to which prisoners mix. Other jurisdictions have implemented such measures. For instance, the Washington District Attorney now prioritises serious violent crimes in order to lessen the burden. With the UK government being inclined towards easing prison population pressure, suspending short sentences is a clear way forward.

Secondly, the early release of older and female prisoners could also help lessen overcrowding, which is a key risk factor of coronavirus. The global rise in ageing prison populations, longer sentencing, and delayed parole reflect the ageing populations in developed countries. Another growing minority group is female prisoners, eight in ten of whom commit non-violent offences (e.g. theft) and therefore generally attract short custodial sentences.

Many of these older and female prisoners do not pose security or public protection threats; releasing them early could improve prison population management. New York and Los Angeles have already freed vulnerable prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak. Similarly, Spain and Iran have followed suit so as to reduce virus transmission amongst prisoners and staff. The recent ministerial intention that prisoners could be released on temporary licences or transferred to bail hostels, whilst modest, could see more than 9,000 prisoners being freed on the grounds of exceptional circumstances.

Reducing the prison population also demonstrates compliance with international policy and legal obligations. The Mandela Rules impose a duty of care on the state to protect prisoners’ health, since when an individual is deprived of their liberty, there is no other alternative but to rely on the authorities to protect their health.

Furthermore, this avoids triggering legal actions from prisoners. Legal cases such as Yarashonen v Turkey and Alimov v Turkey demonstrate that a state is in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) when it fails to contain frequent outbreaks of contagious diseases, chronic overcrowding, unacceptable cleanliness levels, poor medical interventions and the psychological fear of contracting diseases. Reducing this population not only improves the capacity of prisons to deal with coronavirus outbreaks, it is also necessary, proportionate, and deferential towards individual dignity.

Acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic is the ‘worst public health crisis for a generation’ and that vulnerable populations with underlying health conditions need utmost protection, the current crisis forces us to reflect on how we manage the prison population in England and Wales. Coronavirus is largely preventable; suspending short sentences and providing for the early release of older and female prisoners will provide the government with increased capacity to deal with the magnitude of the issue.


About the Author

Nasrul Ismail is Lecturer in Criminology and an ESRC PhD Researcher in Public Health at the University of the West of England.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: by visuals on Unsplash.

COVID-19 as the ultimate leadership challenge: making critical decisions without enough data

Portrait photo of Professor Martin LodgeHeadshot of Prof Arjen Boin, University of LeidenMartin Lodge and Arjen Boin discuss the political decision-making challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic. They look at past crises and analyse three types of coping strategies available.

We are in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing an escalating number of victims and a free-falling global economy. It is likely to get much worse before we will see any improvements. COVID-19 is emerging as the ultimate test for political leaders. Competing views exist as to whether national political leaders are ahead or behind ‘the curve’ of fast-changing dynamics. They are clearly struggling.

Leaders are facing an inevitable task. They have to make critical decisions, but they lack data. The most basic knowledge is missing: we don’t know how many people have been infected, how many people have died from this disease, how many patients will flood the hospitals in the coming weeks, and how the essential economic and state infrastructure is going to perform.

But there is more uncertainty. There is uncertainty about the reliability of information flows (can we trust the data from this or that country?), uncertainty about how to evaluate advice (how do we deal with health experts who offer competing interpretations of the data?), and uncertainty as to how different interventions will effect populations and achieve desired outcomes (will social distancing protect the particularly vulnerable?). There is uncertainty as to whether proposed strategies will come with irreversible consequences (will our economy recover?). In short, leaders have to make life-or-death decisions under conditions of deep uncertainty.

Making sense of a crisis is one of the hardest tasks in crisis management. Having to decide without knowing creates a terrible conundrum that weighs down on leaders. How do leaders deal with such pressing uncertainty? We know that most people do not like uncertainty. There is, we are told, a human and organisational tendency to create a convincing narrative based on the little information they have – a narrative that explains what’s going on and suggests an answer, a strategy. People, and organisations, are also said to stick with that narrative for a long time, disregarding emerging evidence suggesting they are wrong in their assessment.

How do leaders respond to such existential uncertainty? If we look at past crises, we can recognise three types of coping strategies.

Sit tight, do nothing: it can pay to wait it out. If it works, leaders will be praised (they are ‘shrewd’). If it does not work, history won’t be kind (leaders were ‘paralysed’). The Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn famously dismissed the threat of a German invasion, hoping to remain neutral as the Dutch had managed to do during World War I.

A principled approach: leaders adopt a principle (‘minimise harm’) and apply consequential logic (in this case, this is widely known as the ‘better safe than sorry’ precautionary principle). It has the advantage of sending a clear signal to wider society. It seems, at first sight at least, to address the problem. Politically, it has the advantage of looking statesmanship-like. Also, if it works nobody will revisit it in hindsight. This is a favourite approach of leaders, because history suggests it is what real leaders do: we shall fight on the beaches (Churchill), we will smoke ‘em out of their holes (Bush), we will do whatever it takes (Draghi) or we will turn the tide (Johnson).

Debates about this precautionary leadership principle are widespread in everyday life: think GM-foods, e-cigarettes or the use of personal data. In situations of crisis, such a ‘better more than less’ approach seems reasonable given widespread uncertainty. It nevertheless comes with a few challenges: it requires a high degree of state authority, it is difficult to change tack if the dynamics of the situation seems to be requiring an altered course of action, and it may be prone to knee-jerk reactions and over-investment.

A Pragmatist approach: leaders forego dominant principles and base their actions on a mixture of reasoning and feedback. They treat the situation as an experiment: try something that might work, study the consequences, and adjust where necessary. The underlying idea is that a crisis will gradually yield its secrets, when probed in a careful manner.

This is undoubtedly an advantageous approach in many respects, as it foregoes big, irreversible decisions that result in large unintended consequences. Instead, it allows for immediate adjustments on the basis of instant feedback. This Pragmatic approach is, however, dependent on some fundamental pre-requisites. The working hypothesis needs to be carefully argued, based on scientific reasoning (the way NASA built its moon rocket). Quick feedback needs be organised and requires almost immediate responses. Time-lags, therefore, need to be extremely short and responses need to be ready to deal with sudden non-linear dynamics. Feedback will create a constant stream of dilemmas, if not polylemmas. Perhaps most challenging, leaders need to explain that they are experimenting in the face of crisis and other jurisdictions’ contrasting approaches (a principled approach is a much easier sell). If all these pre-requisites are in place, then decision-makers can utilise incoming information to respond ‘thermostat-like’ to emerging knowledge.

So far the theory. How are leaders actually doing in this crisis? The current crisis provides an example of decision-making under conditions of deep uncertainty, where the potential harm is irreversible (in terms of death count and economic damage, not just political careers). It also throws light on how ‘precautionary’ or ‘pragmatist’ approaches work in practice.

Let’s start with what we know and don’t know. We know the novel coronavirus is super contagious and that it can cause a nasty death. We know that the elderly are much more likely to die from it. And they will occupy scarce commodities for a long time, placing already over-stretched health systems under potentially unbearable pressure.

How do leaders cope with this limited knowledge challenge? The ‘wait and see’ approach has been popular with autocratic leaders: Iran, Russia, and the United States have long denied the presence and potential impact of COVID-19. No response was initiated, at least initially.

A few leaders have sought to adopt a Pragmatist approach. The Dutch Prime minister Rutte is a prime example. Rutte explained that ‘the reality is that nobody knows what the correct approach is [..] with 50% of the knowledge we have to make 100% of the decisions’. Rutte roundly rejected the principle of a societal lockdown. The Dutch would rely on scientific data, ‘adjusting the dials’ when and if necessary. Rutte has found it hard to explain the working hypothesis underlying his Pragmatist approach, even in the face of mounting criticism.

Sooner or later, most leaders seem to adopt a principled approach in this crisis. In the early phases of the pandemic, some leaders embraced the principle that the economy should be protected. The ferocious backlash pushed most leaders to adopt the principle of minimise harm, in health and economic terms. The language is clear: we are in a battle! This will hurt. We will have to wait this out. There is no turning back. This frame provides a clear and actionable path: supposedly ‘hollowed out’ nation-states can display their coercive ‘muscle’ in intervening in societal and economic spheres, national boundaries are being reasserted, and solidarity comes as a bonus. The price of this approach will be considered at some later point in time.

This is not the time or place to condemn one approach or support another, or to suggest that one government’s approach is superior to another. For advocates of the Pragmatist approach, one lesson is clearly emerging. Under conditions of uncertainty, creating and communicating a Pragmatist frame is super difficult. It simply cannot work if the underlying logic is not clear and consistent (within and across countries). For the Pragmatist leaders, the drama of today’s crisis leadership may well be the premature convergence towards a principle that is costly and unproven. For those leaning towards a precautionary position, in contrast, the drama of today’s crisis leadership is likely to be the belated convergence towards a precautionary approach where questions of cost and lack of early decisiveness will have caused unnecessary strain.

As we seek to learn from crises, we must study decision-making in situations of uncertainty. Post-crisis judgments of leaders can get rough. But they are trying to make sense of a crisis, one way or another. The current crisis can help us understand – especially when the evidence rolls in – how these approaches perform.


Note: the above was first published on the TransCrisis blog. Featured image credit: Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

About the Authors

Portrait photo of Professor Martin LodgeMartin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) at LSE.

Headshot of Prof Arjen Boin, University of LeidenArjen Boin is Professor of Public Institutions and Governance at the University of Leiden.

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