Society and Culture

Claims that “austerity” is to blame for UK’s poor pandemic response are “baseless,” says new IEA research



IEA research featured in the Mail Online

Long-standing battles on the role and size of the state won’t be settled by a virus, says a new briefing paper from Dr Kristian Niemietz   

  • The Coronavirus pandemic has given rise to the phenomenon of “Coronfirmation Bias”: the tendency to interpret the pandemic as a “vindication” of one’s own world view.

  • Conventional wisdoms about the UK pandemic response – that austerity eroded the state’s capacity to act, that Covid-19 is a crisis of excessive globalisation, and that the NHS has been the star performer of the pandemic – do not stand up to scrutiny. 

  • Some nations have performed better than others across the board, on indicators such as Covid death rates, excess death rates and GDP growth. The four ‘Asian Tigers’ – Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore – have performed exceptionally well. The UK, Italy, Spain and Belgium have performed exceptionally poorly.

  • The best Covid performers have much lower levels of public spending, have open, globalised economies, and they do not have health systems similar to the NHS.

  • An effective pandemic response is compatible with a variety of public spending levels, a variety of trade regimes, and a variety of healthcare systems.   

new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs unpicks efforts by figures on both left and right to use Britain’s Covid performance as a tool to validate their own worldviews.  

This is known as “Coronfirmation Bias,” and is responsible for a number of conventional wisdoms that have emerged in the UK since the start of this crisis.  

For example, some have asserted that the UK was unprepared to tackle the virus because of the austerity agenda. They have used this claim to further attempts to increase public spending – arguing that a hollowed out public sector reduced the UK’s capacity to act swiftly and effectively to combat Covid-19.    

Others have claimed that the pandemic is proof that globalisation has gone too far, leading to calls for economic nationalism and communitarian parochialism to revitalise the economy and reduce the risk of future pandemics. And a consensus has emerged that the NHS has been the hero of the pandemic. Unfortunately for the endorsers of these widespread assertions, they do not stack up with the evidence. The report’s author and IEA Head of Political Economy Dr Kristian Niemietz cautions against using flawed assumptions about the UK’s response to coronavirus as validation of a particular ideological persuasion.   

In a comparison of global responses to the Coronavirus, the four ‘Asian Tigers’; Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore did relatively better than other nations on performance indicators such as death rates and GDP growth.  

Despite this success, these nations do not have large public spending programmes, closed economies or a healthcare system like the NHS. This would suggest that the three commonly held assumptions about the pandemic in the UK are wrong. High public spending, economic nationalism and NHS-style health systems are not required to perform well in a global pandemic.   

However, the paper does not intend to replace a set of ideologically driven conclusions about the pandemic with another. Instead, it highlights that the best responses to the pandemic are achievable with a variety of public spending levels, global trade relationships and health systems. No side of the political divide can claim victory, nor should they use the virus as a vindication of their ideas.   

Many of the countries fighting Covid were successful because of specific policies – such as large-scale testing, travel restrictions and rigorous self-isolation enforcement. These measures do not require an overthrow of a nation’s socio-economic system or rely on a dogmatic set of beliefs. There is no reason for anyone, on the left or the right, to take political victories from Covid-19.   

Dr Kristian Niemietz, Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:  

“It is amazing how so many commentators seem to believe that the pandemic has somehow “vindicated” their own particular view of the world, or their own particular pet causes. This is make-believe. The pandemic has done no such thing. It has not vindicated any political cause or worldview.

“The truth is more mundane. Neither the best-performing nor the worst-performing countries are especially similar to one another, in terms of their socioeconomic models. There is no specific socioeconomic model that emerges as more ‘pandemic-proof’ than others. We should focus more narrowly on the specific policy measures that the best performers got right, rather than trying to shoehorn all of our long-standing ideological disputes into this.”  


Notes to Editors 

Contact: Annabel Denham, [email protected], 07540770774 

Dr Kristian Niemietz is available for further comment.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.