Covid has been an economic as well as a public health catastrophe. Debt is at historic levels. The economic situation we are now facing makes the 2008 financial crash look like a picnic. One of the key questions of the next decade is simple: how will we escape the post-Covid legacy of debt, bankruptcy and unemployment that will be revealed when furlough ends?
One thing is certain. The answer cannot be to tax our way back to prosperity. Instead, we must look at how to turbo-charge growth. But this cannot be a return to the failed boom and bust growth of old. We have seen what happens with get-rich-quick consumer booms in retail, indiscriminate house-dumping and in the City driven by dodgy derivatives and creative accounting. That is the toxic mix that landed us in the post-crash mess a decade ago. Tempting though it might be to return to it as a quick fix, we must resist. We need to make Covid and Brexit a moment for serious commitment to a new economic model for the UK as an Innovation Nation: pioneering the technologies of tomorrow for healthier and cleaner growth for export to the world’s fastest growing markets.
So how do we do it? Not with technocratic tinkering. We need to be as bold as the Thatcher generation in exploring new sectors with the potential for double-digit expansion: with an active industrial strategy for investment in science and technology, commercialised and financed here in the City – and exported around the world with the help of our new traffic freedoms and closer alignment of aid and trade.
The pace of globalisation is creating massive markets in areas the UK has huge strengths in: high growth sectors like AgriTech, CleanTech, MedTech, Informatics, AI, Robotics and Synthetic Biology.
Before becoming an MP, I worked for fifteen years in the life science sector financing cutting-edge biomedical innovation. A decade ago, though, life sciences was still a fringe specialty. In 2011, I was appointed Government Life Science Advisor. In 2014 I became the first-ever Minister for Life Sciences. But few knew exactly what I did or what life sciences really were. Whenever the life sciences sector was mentioned in the press it was in connection to Frankenfood or because of patient data. Few saw the long term importance of our groundbreaking Life Science Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, the Accelerated Access reforms at MHRA and NICE for faster procurement and approvals – or how within a few years it would transform all our lives.
The pandemic has changed everything. The life sciences sector is now centre stage. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is saving lives right across the globe. Our work here in the UK over the last ten years has laid the foundations for the extraordinary vaccine success we are now seeing. Our groundbreaking Life Science Industrial Strategy has paid dividends and is fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.
Our success with life sciences shows what’s possible. And it doesn’t have to stop there. We have world-leading expertise in other areas like agri-tech, clean-tech, biosecurity, space and automated vehicles. In health, we have the chance to build upon our recent success and harness the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health and innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials and value-based pricing. In nutraceuticals, we can develop health-promoting “super-foods” and cannabis medicines alongside twenty-first farming technology like the environmentally sustainable blight-resistant potato, banned by the EU.
Clean-tech, meanwhile, offers us the hope of new biofuels alongside Carbon Capture and Storage and digital “smart grids” to reward households and businesses for generating more and using less. Biosecurity can develop the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal and human biosecurity. Digital breakthroughs are removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework, while in hydrogen we are using the full power of the government to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics. Finally, in mobility we are making the UK a global testbed for new mobility technologies.
Before us is a major opportunity to lead a healthier and cleaner recovery. Crucially, that doesn’t mean low growth. It means green smart growth. Brexit is a once-in-a-generation moment where Britain can lead regulation of the new economy. The EU’s resistance to the commercialisation of science risked holding back British innovation in the global slow lane. Now, as our success with the vaccine shows, we have a chance to use our regulatory freedom to lead in a range of new high growth sectors.
The Prime Minister absolutely gets this. He championed this vision in his leadership bid (it was why I backed him in the leadership) and put the most pro-science agenda in history at the heart of Number 10 with reforms like the new ARPA-style Science Agency. It is at the core of his vision, as it was during his time as Mayor of London.
That’s why I’m so delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help lead the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) alongside Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers. The taskforce will be reporting directly to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office. It will consider and recommend ways to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit and post-Covid recovery.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.
During the nineteenth century, Britain was the innovation and industrial capital of the world. With our world class science and technology expertise, we have a genuine chance to become a genuine Innovation Nation: a global powerhouse and testbed for the technologies of tomorrow. If we make Brexit and Covid the catalysts for a more sustainable model of growth – developing the high growth businesses and sectors of tomorrow – we will help both more sustainable global growth and give the next generation a path out of debt to prosperity and global purpose. Let’s seize it.
George Freeman MP served as Minister of State for the Future of Transport (2019-20), Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18), Minister for Life Sciences (2014-16), and UK Trade Envoy (2013-14). He is founder of the Big Tent Ideas Festival, author of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit and recently launched the Reform for Resilience Commission.