Friday, 21 May 2021

Large scale job creation?


There was a story, some years ago, about a British company which ordered a large quantity of computer chips from a company in Japan. The order specified a fault rate of 2%, meaning that they expected that 98% of the chips delivered would be perfect. When the order arrived, there was a small package containing some of the chips along with a note which advised the customer that the faulty chips had been packed separately so it would be obvious which ones they were. The point of the story, of course, is that the traditional ‘British’ approach to quality control was to put expensive processes in place to identify faulty products, whilst the Japanese approach was to build quality in so that there were no faulty products to identify.

It’s stereotyping (and almost certainly apocryphal), but it resonates. Worse, it seems to underpin some aspects of the current government’s approach to handling the pandemic, and in particular the issue of quarantine. Moving from a ban on all holiday travel to a gradual relaxation could have been a very simple process: all that was required was to keep all existing rules, and publish a list of excepted countries where travel was once more permitted. Those booking holidays would know exactly where they stood, and travel companies could bring enough staff off furlough and enough planes out of their parking zones to run flights to a small number of countries. But why do anything so simple when there is a more complicated approach available? By removing the ban on travel and placing all countries into one of three lists, the government has managed to turn simplicity into absolute confusion. Travel companies believed (reasonably enough) that they had been given the legal go-ahead to run flights to amber list countries and consequently lined up more planes and staff than would otherwise have been the case, and would-be holiday-makers believed that they were being told that they could go as long as they followed the quarantine rules on return. The government has spent much of the time since their announcement trying to explain that that which is legal isn’t really allowed after all.

Not only that, but they’ve been busy expanding the numbers of people employed to check that people are properly quarantining – the Home Secretary told us yesterday that “Significant resources have been put in place – millions of pounds – in terms of the follow-up checking of people around their testing and making sure they stay at home. It has been stepped up”. As job creation projects go, getting more people working to provide travel arrangements which then require the government to employ more people to check up on those who travel is a pretty large scale scheme but, just like the example of those computer chips, it’s about dealing with the consequences of things going wrong rather than preventing them from going wrong in the first place.

The government would probably counter by arguing that trusting people to use their own good sense and do the right thing is better than banning them from doing the wrong thing. In principle, they’re right – social solidarity is a much more cohesive approach than using rigid rules. But social solidarity is based on people identifying with the common good and wanting to work collectively, not on a system of shaming, pursuing, and fining transgressors. And a party which has spent decades preaching – and is still doing so – that greed is good, and that selfishness is the motive which should drive us all is singularly ill-placed to fall back on any sort of appeal to people’s altruism.

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