At a time like this, those of us who believe in free markets and limited government face challenges in justifying adherence to those principles. It is hard to argue against governments doing “whatever it takes” to combat the spread of the disease and save lives and livelihoods. In fact, as my colleague Christopher Snowdon set out in the Daily Telegraph last week, there is no need to make such arguments. There no inconsistency insupporting individual freedoms in normal times and acceptingcoercive measures by the state in a public health emergency.
Similarly, the massive expansion of the state comprised in the chancellor’s rescue package is broadly welcome for giving people the assurance they need that their homes, incomes and businesses will have some protection in highly unusual circumstances. However, there are many areas where reductions in government intervention should be urgently pursued.
The New York Times reported that a biotech lab had carried out tests and identified cases of Covid-19 in the Seattle area, well before it was known that the virus had taken hold in the United States. The lab did not have the correct accreditations for this activity from the FDA and was ordered to cease testing. The regulators in the US have since relaxed their position on this, but the question must surely be asked, what was the purpose of the restriction in the first place and how can it be right that it applied so strictly that it actively worked against important research at a vital time?
Europe is also suffering under the burden of pointless bureaucracy in healthcare: the Consumer Choice Center has highlighted that 20 countries in Europe don’t allow online ordering of prescription medicines and 18 require even non-prescription medicines like paracetamol to be sold in pharmacies only. Thankfully the UK is not in the guilty groupof countries in either case, but we still have many regulations that are holding people back from getting the support that they need.
Some steps in that direction are being taken here. The Coronavirus Bill, published yesterday, gives the government emergency powers, but it also suspends various regulations, like the ban on recently retired doctors from returning to work more than 16 hours per week. It reduces the administration tasks and paperwork that health and care workers have to carry out – surely welcome at any time and not something that should take a global crisis to enact.
The Department for Housing Communities and Local Government has announced that planning rules will be relaxed so that pubs and restaurants can operate as hot food takeaways. These are the kind of rules that inspired the hashtag #NeverNeeded, urging Twitter users to identify regulations that are holding back efforts to counter the virus and were surely never needed in the first place.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that people and organisations should not feel restricted from doing what they need to do to help people because of data protection laws. This is an example of a regulation (the GDPR) that has been shown to be so badly formulated and poorly understood that people are not able to make decisions with certainty as to what is permitted without an ad hoc intervention from the secretary of state.
In my recent paper for the IEA, Rules Britannia, I noted that regulations are often put in place based on quite dubious cost/benefit analysis, and then not reviewed to see if they actually achieved their objective. The way in which regulations have been relaxed as a matter of urgency by governments around the world, in some cases after they have caused serious barriers in battling the spread of the virus, has highlighted this in stark terms. This is also why calls to impose ‘emergency legislation to remove “morally unacceptable” conspiracy theories’ from social media platforms should be resisted. Misinformation at this is time is deeply damaging, but a perception that government is controlling the media to hide things from citizens could be even worse. Knee jerk responses that unnecessarily curtail freedoms run the risk of being counterproductive, and such measures have a history of being be retained long after their original purpose has been forgotten.
When this public health emergency is over, we will need all of the productive capacity and innovation that free markets can provide to ensure that the economy recovers and there are jobs for people to go back to. Wealth is the strongest predictor of health in a society and free economies grow the fastest. If dealing with Covid-19 allows us to identify regulations that are holding back productivity and innovation in healthcare and across the economy as a whole we must not waste the opportunity to re-examine whether they were in fact ever needed.
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