What a year eh?
Twenty-twenty will be characterised by bio-security, a virus few, if any, apart from Dominic Cummings of course, had heard about as 2019 came to an end. What change it has brought, particularly for food systems, what legacies will emerge?
Of course, as 2020 comes to an end, another running sore, Brexit, has raised its uglier head again. Perhaps one of the silver-linings of the pandemic was that our deteriorating relations with the EU was removed from the limelight. Combined, Brexit and Coronavirus are a destructive cocktail.
Indeed, combined both have placed the spotlight of structural deficiencies of Britain, albeit ones that could be positively adjusted if we had a fit for purpose establishment. Brexit and Coronavirus have tested the skills of state policy makers, not that their tasks were easy or enviable, it should be said.
However, in the flawed assessment of the dangers of the virus in its early days, the comprehension not to lockdown care homes at first base, over-promising on testing, track and trace, ludicrous decision-making around education, chaos personified, not helped by can’t do, won’t do, don’t do, teaching unions.., and then Brexit; it has been a low score in the appraisal of the UK Government. The latter is a failure of statesmanship on both sides of the Channel too. Put together this is abject failure by Government ministers.
And then there is the Civil Service, which has been badly found out. It simply is an old boys and girls club that is not biased, it is just self-perpetuating. Cummings did some stupid things but he was right about the Civil Service going into the pandemic, and he is right about coming out. One of the reasons that the UK is so ill-prepared for the future, its Westminster politicians aside, is that we do not have enough appropriately educated, experienced and talented senior public servants around digital, green, mathematics and science in the highest echelons of policy making and the Civil Service.
Which brings one onto the subject of advisors and the media. It is hard not to rant when one considers these groupings. In fact they are linked as many eminent scientists seem drugged on being on the BBC and Sky News. It seems discretion is a dirty word for many SAGE members – (do these people not have to sign the Official Secrets Act?) – as they seek their fifteen minutes of fame, whilst the media has been destructive, unreasonably harranging Ministers and thinking the decent public do not disapprove. And then we have Sky’s Political Editor, who has pompously and aggressively been at the fore of this media approach, including to Cummings’, found culpable of breaking Coronavirus rules on a sixtieth party bash with her colleagues whilst we should not forget Niall Ferguson’s contribution to compliance. It is just rubbish.
Meanwhile, thousands of Briton’s who obeyed the rules missed the last moments of their passing loved ones, did not see their parents, grandparents did not see new arrivals; the establishment has let us down practically and morally in so many ways.
“For the food system, the future will embrace considerable change, technological advances in every aspect of the industry will ensure that, but also in a world of enhanced bio-security, the next phases of sustainability, the never-ending advances in well-being plus perhaps notable scope for import substitution and a new agri-policy as the CAP fades away from these shores, the future will be one of great challenge but opportunity.”
So what of the legacies of 2020?
We will clearly know a good deal more next year as the impact of the vaccine takes hold and we observe the UK’s relationship with the EU. In the meantime, the British hospitality industry has been through hell. As many as 10% of the countries public houses have closed down, not to re-open anytime soon, and maybe up to 20% of the casual dining segment. That capacity reduction has implications for owners, employees, the supply chain and future prices.
For grocers, business rates aside (‘thank you Tesco’ I can hear every other supermarket boss saying), 2020 has been a year of elevated demand, the rise of online, lower promotions and new ways of operating around viral control. The big factor behind these changes, the virus aside, is working from home; and this is a major ongoing change for the industry. As I outlined before now, it means suburban food systems are structurally boosted but city centre and travel hub locations are decimated. The future though looks brighter for most supermarket groups.
All of which brings us to Brexit and the food system. Prior to the New Year, the port chaos at Dover and Felixstowe, does not augur well. Clearly there could be higher operating costs and, through decisions to prioritise key lines, less choice. How any tariff arrangements pan out remains to be seen, but clearly there could also be higher prices for certain goods with product sourcing adjustments as well. French wine, Irish beef and Danish ham markets could all adjust in their market presence in the UK in 2021, as could demand for home produced goods.
Coming back to the bug and Brexit, four final thoughts. First, there is a worrying sense of entitlement in a large part of the UK, where many folks and groups seem to think that a money tree genuinely exists. Second, the future of the UK is now a much more live political and policy issue. The Scots are angling for independence and the rest of the UK may just think; go, but not on your terms. Nicola Surgeon may be wise to move on quickly as and when Scotland becomes independent.
Third, the island of Ireland also starts to look potentially different. Elements of the Belfast Agreement could be tested in ways that its authors probably could not have anticipated. How ironic it is that Tony Blair’s open borders policy that adjusted the British labour market could be a key factor behind future challenges and change in Northern Ireland.
In the meantime, Northern Ireland is the focal point of the dysfunction of British and EU politicians. Its food system is subject to EU law, there is a border down the Irish Sea for imports from Great Britain and, bless them, the good people of the region’s food industry are understandably seething with the shallow rhetoric and, frankly, bull-shit of Michael Gove and others. I make this point as the Chairman to two fine food businesses in the region, Mash Direct and Morelli’s ice cream.
And lastly, after what will be a rise in constitutional questions for the Union, will be The Chancellor’s Budget in March, which must assuage the markets that the British are not reckless. Hence, a balanced Budget needs to be in the agenda which means, if we are all in this together, higher taxes; the triple lock, NIC for the self-employed, pension tax relief for higher rate earners, taxing Amazon et al and so it goes. If we do not then the pound could slide, with worrying implications for inflation and interest rates.
Similarly, whilst a balanced budget is important, I implore him and his gang to genuinely think strategically about what will make the UK more competitive for business in the next decade from a supply side perspective. There is a huge opportunity but also a necessity here and it embraces seizing what Brexit may deliver around policies that set the UK on a more entrepreneurial, greener, innovative and prosperous future; one where we can perhaps afford our public services.
One lives in hope but the car crash of a year for the British establishment leaves one in abject fear. For the food system, the future will embrace considerable change, technological advances in every aspect of the industry will ensure that, but also in a world of enhanced bio-security, the next phases of sustainability, the never-ending advances in well-being plus perhaps notable scope for import substitution and a new agri-policy as the CAP fades away from these shores, the future will be one of great challenge but opportunity. Whatever one thinks of 2020, it is momentous year with a long hang-over.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!
Dr Clive Black