NI faces ‘deep and prolonged economic downturn’

Post-virus – and after Brexit – everything is going to change. That’s the dominant view of national and international media. But how exactly do they see the future? This regular digest section gives some of their answers and views/Edited by George Hamilton

In this edition (June 22)

Coronavirus: NI faces ‘deep and prolonged economic downturn’

  • Northern Ireland faces rising unemployment, sharply reduced foreign investment and Brexit complications, the economy minister has warned in a report published yesterday (Wed)

British farmers worry US trade deal will stop them bringing home the bacon

  • Ministers face big challenges balancing Brexit promises with protection for UK agriculture and consumers 

‘Are you immune?’ The new class system that could shape the Covid-19 world

  • Experts suspect – but there is no proof – that antibodies will confer immunity. The implications could be wide-ranging

Coronavirus could finally fix some of our most toxic work habits

  • The working day was once ruled by time-wasting meetings and how much time we spent at our desks. When coronavirus sent everyone home, everything changed

Coronavirus: NI faces ‘deep and prolonged economic downturn’

A sobering assessment of NI’s prospects is contained in an economic recovery plan published yesterday (Wed) by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

The plan is intended to tackle the challenges of the next 18 months.It includes a focus on improving skills and supporting strategically important sectors.

“Our people are our key asset so developing the skills base of our young people and workforce will remain central to our economic success,” said Mrs Dodds.

“We also intend to focus on sectors where there is a potential for growth in higher paying jobs such as life and health sciences, advanced manufacturing, clean energy and big data.”

On Tuesday, official figures showed unemployment in Northern Ireland had risen to its highest level since 1997.

The report, Rebuilding a Stronger Economy, says it is “inevitable that we are facing a deep and prolonged economic downturn”. It warns unemployment will keep rising and that foreign direct investment is likely to be greatly reduced in the short and medium term.

It adds that these issues could be could be further compounded by the operation of the NI Protocol and Brexit more generally. The report says that some of the structural weaknesses of the NI economy will need to be tackled for a sustained recovery.

Those include too few higher-paying jobs, a skills gap and regional imbalances. The report says that re-skilling people who lose their jobs will need a particular focus.

Meanwhile, Mrs Dodds also announced the membership of her Economic Advisory Group: the 11-strong panel, which includes economists and industrialists, will be led by Ellvena Graham, the former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland.

However, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance argued Mrs Dodds should have included trade unionists and representatives of the community and voluntary sectors.

Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald, who chairs the economy committee, said that if the advisory group is “to seriously deal with longstanding problems of the past, the crisis of the present, and the threat of climate breakdown”, then its membership should be widened.

Meanwhile, the SDLP’s Sinead McLaughlin described its make up as “a missed opportunity”, adding that it should be given a remit to address regional imbalances, and Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson called for “participation from everyone involved” in the economic recovery.

“Workers will obviously be a key part, so trade unions should have a voice in this group to advocate for workers’ rights,” said Mr Dickson. BBC News June 17

British farmers worry US trade deal will stop them bringing home the bacon

Peter Foster:  But with the end of the Brexit transition period less than six months away and US-UK trade talks already well under way there is growing concern in the UK farming community, which has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, that it will not survive the coming onslaught of global competition.

At the heart of the problem for UK farmers is cost. US pork production costs are about half those of the UK due to intensive rearing methods such as sow stalls and growth-enhancing feed additives such as Ractopamine. These practices are banned under EU regulations, which the UK must abide by until the transition period ends in January 2021.

Sow stalls, banned in 1999, almost completely restrict the movement of breeding sows, allowing thousands more animals to be housed in the same space and cutting food intake by about 30 per cent — all of which cuts cost.

“Ministers often say the UK will not dilute ‘our’ welfare standards after Brexit,” said Rob Mutimer, who runs an outdoor pig farm in Norfolk with his wife Helen, a vet. “But they don’t say how they will protect us from imports produced to much lower standards, like those in the US. We have to have a level playing field.”

Even those UK farmers using more intensive methods such as Richard Lister who keeps 3,000 sows in his indoor breeding units in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, cannot hope to compete with the scale of big US agribusinesses that can have herds of 20,000 sows and more.

His pigs live indoors, but they also have straw or slatted floors and the freedom to move about. “The media has latched on to ‘chlorinated chicken’ and ‘hormone beef’, but the real issue is welfare standards. Without protection, we’ll be sitting ducks,” he said.

Ed Barker, senior policy adviser at the UK’s National Pig Association says that even if the UK maintained EU-style bans on chlorine washes or additives such as Ractopamine, it was lower welfare standards that really enabled US producers to lower costs.

His confidence took a further hit last month when the government blocked an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have legally enshrined a “level playing field” on welfare standards. “If the government is sincere, then why not write it into law?” he said.

The challenges facing ministers as they try to deliver on Brexit promises, secure a trade deal with a powerhouse such as the US and simultaneously protect UK farmers and maintain public confidence are immense.

The US’s National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) in its official comments on the US mandate said any deal must open the door to “duty free” imports to the UK and drop what it terms as the EU’s “bogus food safety concerns”.

It concluded that the UK faced “stark choices” over whether to maintain “the EU’s non-science-based and protectionist” barriers to agricultural trade, or open itself to “modern agricultural production methods of the kind practised by the United States”.

Among the ideas recently floated by ministers to avoid those “stark choices” was a differential tariff, that would see higher tariffs imposed on food imports with lower standards. However, trade experts are extremely doubtful such an idea would be acceptable to US negotiators.

Nick Giordano, lead counsel at the NPPC representing US pork producers, was clearer still. The idea of differential tariff rates would be “dead on arrival” in Washington, he said.

The NPPC argues that the intensively reared “hogs” in the US are no less happy or healthy than Mr Mutimer’s outdoor-raised pigs, and that UK consumers should be free to choose which products they prefer now they are freed from the controls of “bureaucrats in Brussels”.

But British consumer confidence will be key. Opening UK markets to US products risks awakening long-dormant political questions on trade that together with trade policy were exported to Brussels long ago.

Almost 1m people have signed an online petition supporting UK food standards organised by the National Farmers’ Union that has been endorsed by the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and backed by the UK’s popular press.

This week Which? wrote to Liz Truss, the UK international trade secretary, warning that a US-UK deal posed a potential threat to food safety. The consumer watchdog included a survey showing that 72 per cent of the public did not want products such as chlorine-washed chicken.

Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare campaign group, is among those who doubt that the government can square the circle between free trading Brexiters, farmers and consumers.

“If the UK wants a trade deal with the US, I find it hard to believe they’ll be able to prevent low-quality imports in every livestock sector. They will have to choose,” he said. Financial Times June 17

‘Are you immune?’ The new class system that could shape the Covid-19 world

Scrolling through Airbnbs in Brooklyn, one listing stands out. “IMMUNE HOST,” claims the heading in caps. Among photos of rooftop sunsets and interiors, lies something else unexpected – a picture of a positive antibody test.

Host Martin Eaton says he got tested a few weeks after getting sick with what he suspected was Covid-19 in March. When the results came back positive, he decided to include it in his profile to attract reservations.

“If I was having to travel to New York I’d prefer staying with somebody who had the antibodies versus somebody who didn’t,” says the 48-year-old writer. So far, he adds, “it’s proved pretty successful”.

In the absence of a vaccine, immunity is emerging as a potential key to resuming normal life after the pandemic – leading some to believe that testing positive may not be such a bad thing. Providing they survive, they will at least – they hope – be immune. But as states and countries slowly reopen businesses to the public, how important will it be?

Questions remain over the accuracy of Covid-19 antibody tests and the World Health Organization has warned that there is no evidence that people who have recovered from the virus and have antibodies are protected from getting it a second time.

But experts predict that if survivors are found to be immune, they could perform a range of jobs and services – such as volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes, caring for coronavirus patients and working in shops and food processing plants – risk-free. And, depending on how authorities, business and society at large respond, they could also be entitled to greater freedoms.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said immunity certificates are “possible” in the US and that they “might actually have some merit under certain circumstances”.

Providing there is a way to certify that people have had the test, that it was effective and that the antibodies last, Dr Ezekiel J Emanuel, chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says immunity passports could have “real positives” for both the patient and the wider community.

He also believes it will become necessary for travel – even after a vaccine – to prove immunity and as a means to skip quarantine. “Showing that you’ve been infected and are immune and can’t transmit the virus is a really powerful mechanism.”

The concept is already being adopted by the private sector. The hotel booking app Sidehide and verification company Onfido are developing an immunity passport for hotels – set to launch in Miami this month.

Such are the perceived benefits of immunity that some people are intentionally trying to get the potentially deadly virus.

Dr Jerome Williams Jr, cardiologist and senior vice-president of consumer engagement at Novant Health, says they have had multiple people test positive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after attending “coronavirus parties” – gathering unprotected with positive people – in the hope of getting infected. Without knowing exactly how immunity works, the parties are, he says, “a bad idea all round”.

During the 19th century in the American south, yellow fever – which had a 50% death rate – created an “epidemiological hierarchy” of those who had and had not had it, says Kathryn Olivarius, assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

This, she adds, created “immunocapital” that affected newly arrived white people’s ability to get jobs, homes and insurance policies, which meant they had little option but to try to get infected.

Olivarius fears a similar situation could be created today if employers start hiring only people with antibodies. “I’m worried we’ll develop this system, the haves of immunity, the have-nots, it sounds science fictional almost.”

But according to Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of Weapons of Math Destruction, it is unlikely that immunity will grant people much power, considering brown and black people are the ones hardest hit by the virus and therefore the most likely to be immune.

“Most powerful people in this country will not have immunity and they will not set up a system that excludes them from things that they like to do.”

“I do worry that it’s like we’re welcoming our algorithmic overlords to our lives in order to deal with this public health menace,” she says. “And then we’ll be stuck with them.” Guardian June 10

Coronavirus could finally fix some of our most toxic work habits

Face to face interactions were seen as the most essential form of business communication for establishing relationships and driving collaboration. But the lockdown proved that it is possible to be productive without meeting people in the flesh, and exposedthe bad habits formed over years in the workplace.

The average UK employee has 4.4 meetings per week, over half of which they believe are unnecessary, according to a 2018 survey by eShare, a meeting governance technology firm. Workers are spending 5 hours and 47 mins per week in these meetings, and nearly five hours preparing for them. All of that time spent unnecessarily could be at an end, if this period of working from home causes a shift to communication that doesn’t require an immediate response, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, Lumry Family associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

“If you give people time to react to your question they can take the time and their contributions can often be more thoughtful,” says Choudhury.

If mass remote working becomes permanent, it could end the toxic company culture that ties people to their desks; after all, the lockdown proved it is possible to be productive even if a line manager can’t see you. Companies’ encouragement of presenteeism in recent years has meant workers come into work even though they are sick. Between 1993 and 2017, the average number of sick days workers took halved from 7.2 days per year to 4.1, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This culture took a beating when people were forced to self-isolate for 14 days if they showed symptoms of coronavirus, and was completely destroyed when the vast majority of the UK’s workforce began doing their jobs remotely. Employers suddenly had to accept and accommodate the fact that their workforce have other responsibilities such as caring for their children or elderly relatives and let them work flexibly.

If this attitude continues to play a key part in the way companies operate after the crisis, it could ‘encourage’ people who have long wanted to work flexibly but have not found it a feasible option to engage with their employer on work-life balance. Most employees have been held back from requesting flexible arrangements because of cultural barriers within their companies, and a perception that their careers will suffer, or that they will be overlooked for promotions and bonuses, if they don’t put enough time in the office.

Late last year Zapier surveyed 900 US ‘knowledge workers’ – people who primarily work in an office setting and use a computer – and found that 95 per cent wanted to work remotely and 74 per cent would be willing to quit a job in order to do so.

According to research from recruitment firm Capability Jane, 81 per cent of UK employees feel that flexible working makes a job more attractive to them, which the CIPD, an association for HR professionals, has now suggested employers should consider in order to support working parents.

The lockdown has already changed the way we use technology in the workplace. Organisations with strong online social networks are 7 per cent more productive than those without,according to a paper published in the Harvard Business Review in 2009. In a report from Deloitte, published in 2014, one company found that a manager saved 43 minutes a month with improved digital tools. With over 30,000 managers, the company estimated an annual productivity increase of $12 million. The vast majority of companies who have had to adapt quickly to new circumstances may have inadvertently gifted themselves a boost in productivity.

In just a few months, the coronavirus crisis has made unprecedented cultural changes in the workplace that would have otherwise taken years. It has proven that it is possible to have it all: to be productive while giving employees the flexibility they desire. It’s up to businesses to keep it that way. Wired UK June 10

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