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Covid crisis changing the structure of UK economy, Bank of England chief says

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/11/2020 Larry Elliott Economics editor
a store filled with lots of traffic: Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Recent vaccine developments have signalled light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel and could be the trigger for a post-crisis surge in investment, the governor of the Bank of England has said.

Andrew Bailey hailed the results of clinical trials by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna as encouraging and said the prospect of treatments for the virus would remove a key source of uncertainty that had held back capital spending.

The governor said investment was currently being put on hold as a result of Covid-19 and Brexit uncertainty but that the shock of the pandemic might lead to a cure for the UK’s poor productivity record.

Speaking at a CityUK conference Bailey said that while the crisis had changed how people worked and shopped, the structural change to the economy would be less painful than the shift from manufacturing to services in the 1980s.

But in a separate speech, one of Threadneedle Street’s deputy governors, Dave Ramsden, highlighted the extent of the damage caused by the pandemic.

Ramsden said as much as £490bn would be lost to the economy over the next three years, representing a severe hit to living standards and lost tax revenue to finance public spending.

Bailey said nobody was sure how permanent the economic changes would be but his “best guess” was that they would last.

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“I will add two further views, one is that we may see a reversal of the period of low productivity growth. Covid may be the spur – the change agent if you like.

“Second, we must now focus and push ahead hard with the changes necessary to support changing the direction of our climate. All of this will require investment on a much larger scale than we have seen in recent years, and that investment will need to be financed.”

Productivity – the amount of output produced per worker or each hour worked – has been historically low since the financial crisis of the late 2000s, but Bailey said the recent reluctance to invest was understandable.

“Economic theory indicates that heightened uncertainty about the future tends to have a negative effect on investment; it increases the attraction of waiting to see how the uncertainty is resolved. Both Covid and the process of setting the future relationship with the EU have increased uncertainty – we see this in surveys – and this has restrained investment.”

The news on vaccines had been “encouraging”, Bailey said. “Of course there is a lot to do, and important steps to take and evidence to gather, but this is a big step forward, and it will play a major role in lowering the level of uncertainty.”

a group of people in a store: The Ocado customer fulfilment centre at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The Covid crisis has prompted people to change how they shop and work. © Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian The Ocado customer fulfilment centre at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The Covid crisis has prompted people to change how they shop and work.

He added: “If we can now see some light at the end of the tunnel, we need to focus more on important questions about how our economies will look in the future, how we want them to look, what will be the legacy of Covid, and what we can do to support and prioritise any necessary more structural changes.”

The 1980s and early 1990s saw long-term unemployment rise rapidly in the UK’s industrial heartlands as factories and coal mines closed, but the governor said it was unlikely that history would repeat itself.

“We saw deep and painful structural change in the economy in the 1980s and into the 1990s, with a transition from heavy industry and mining to a more services oriented economy. That was a much more painful process, with very difficult consequences, including a sharp increase in economic inequality. I don’t believe that Covid will lead to the sort of inter-sectoral change that we saw in the 1980s and 90s.”

Ramsden said workers who were losing their jobs had skills that could be more easily transferred to new employers than in past downturns.


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