Will Hutton: Pessimism and optimism about the worst recession ever | University of Oxford
The principal of Hertford College, Oxford, the commentator Will Hutton: COVID-19 has exposed the ‘extreme fragility’ of the UK economy
The principal of Hertford College, Oxford, the commentator Will Hutton: COVID-19 has exposed the ‘extreme fragility’ of the UK economy

Will Hutton: Pessimism and optimism about the worst recession ever

The UK is heading for a worse recession and much higher unemployment than the Bank of England expects, according to Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford and one of Britain’s leading political-economy commentators.

Speaking today as official data shows a quarter on quarter fall of more than 20% in gross domestic product, Will Hutton maintains he is ‘pessimistic and optimistic’ about the UK economy. But he believes we are heading into the longest and deepest recession ‘since whenever’ and unemployment could top Bank out-of-work forecasts of 3.5 million by as much as 30%.

The best-selling author maintains COVID-19 has exposed the ‘extreme fragility’ of the UK economy and he believes, ‘We won’t get back to 2019 levels of GDP until the first six months of 2022 at the earliest.’

COVID-19 has exposed the ‘extreme fragility’ of the UK economy...We won’t get back to 2019 levels of GDP until the first six months of 2022 at the earliest

‘It’s so much worse than in the US and the rest of Europe,’ he says. ‘The figures show the economy is over-reliant on hospitality and catering...There is a huge gambling industry. But the economy does not have deep roots and too many jobs are ephemeral, too many workers lack employment rights. COVID-19 has shone a light on this.’

On top of economic fragility, Will Hutton argues the pandemic has laid bare a lack of leadership: ‘The UK’s winner-takes-all political system meant that the Brexit Tories took all...It’s like living in a one-party-state.’

Reflecting on the way the pandemic has been handled, which has added to the economic woes, he insists, ‘There were mistakes [such as not locking down early enough] and the communications strategy [which has terrified people], not to mention the inability to develop a robust test, track and isolate system, contracting-out the work to an uncoordinated network of private contractors... And why have there been 100 people on SAGE (the Government’s scientific advisory group)? You only need 12 people, at most. You can’t get consistent advice with 100 people.’

There were mistakes [such as not locking down early enough] and the communications strategy [which has terrified people], not to mention the inability to develop a robust test, track and isolate system, contracting-out the work to an uncoordinated network of private contractors...And why have there been 100 people on SAGE (the Government’s scientific advisory group)? 

But, while voicing concern over the ‘gene pool’ of potential political talent, Will Hutton maintains that the crisis does give him cause for optimism – in the longer term.

‘Everyone now realises you can’t go on like this,’ he says. ‘The foundations of the way we do business have to change. The way that our government is hyper-centralised needs to change. And Oxford has shown that, far from denigrating experts, we need them.’

Although Hutton believes the current situation will be particularly acute for 18-25-year-olds, he says there is hope for the future: ‘The case for global collaboration is rising. There are currents abroad which will capitalise on this crisis. For example we now know, particularly when we look at photos of ourselves a couple of years ago at a wedding or a party or attending any event with other people, that the precondition for associating with others freely was knowing they were healthy.

'Public health is not an optional thing – a resilient public health system is the precondition for work, play - our civilisation itself.’

He concludes: ‘There is good news. Searching questions are going to have to be asked after all this....And that has to be a good thing.’