One of the bods who consults to the United Nations tells us that the UK’s Covid-19 performance is all about our commitment to cheap food. This is of course entire nonsense and a newspaper should know better than to propagate such foolishness.
To start with the UK doesn’t have a cheap food policy. We are currently inside the European Union’s tariff barriers and will remain so until January 1 2020 – deo volente we’ll leave then. The EU’s tariff barriers apply far more to food than anything else and they are there specifically and exactly to make food more expensive within the European Union.
We simply do not have a cheap food policy, not until we go all 1846 on the Corn Laws we don’t.
But there’s more to it than that:
Cramped conditions in some factories and in low-paid workers’ homes, spurred by the UK’s desire for cheaply produced food, may have driven infection rates in the sector, according to David Nabarro, a World Health Organization special envoy on Covid-19.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK avoided the scale of Covid-19 outbreaks seen in meat factories and other food processing plants in countries such as the US. But a Guardian analysis suggests that reported UK outbreaks of the disease are now increasing in frequency, with examples of cases spreading into the wider community.
While there is no suggestion of breaking social distancing rules, factories by their nature involve large numbers of workers under one roof.
Unions say most of those working in UK meat, poultry and other mass food production plants are foreign migrant workers who share accommodation and transport.
Nabarro, speaking in his capacity as a professor at University College London’s Institute for Global Health, raised the issue of low pay, which may mean employees exposed to the virus feel pressured to keep working. A culture of cheap food was based on driving production costs down – but at a price, he said.
That is not a function of cheap food that is a function of migration and immigration. The indigenes will not work in such conditions, for such wages that gain access to such housing. This is why the firms involved employ those migrants in the first place. What looks like not worth the bother of getting up in the morning to someone from Tiverton looks like a grand job to someone fleeing the memory of socialism from Timisoara.
The very fact that these factories are largely staffed by such migrants is the very proof needed that this is about migration and immigration, not cheap food.
Now, what we do about it is another matter. But we can only, obviously enough, solve perceived problems if we identify the cause in the first place. As everyone involved here is acting voluntarily then hte base assumption must be that each position is better for the person involved than the other options available to them. Hacking at chickens in Tiverton is indeed better than the rubble socialism created in Timisoara. So, let’em come. To the extent that food is cheaper as a result then all consumers are better off. That is, as so often with market outcomes, nothing need be done at all.
But again, to reach that point we’ve got to understand what it is causing the problem. We certainly can’t blame it on the cheap food policy we don’t have.