On Wednesday the Chancellor Rishi Sunak presented the government’s latest budget. What do experts and professionals think about the government’s 2021 Spring Budget?


First published in March 2021.


What the experts say.


ON SCIENCE IN GENERAL

“Today’s Budget, including the publication of ‘Build Back Better: our plan for growth’, provides welcome recognition of the potential of the UK’s high-growth, innovative technology companies alongside the importance of additional government investment in the green industrial revolution. We welcome the emphasis on ensuring that the UK is internationally competitive, encouraging business investment and ensuring that international innovators working across universities, start-ups, and innovative businesses, can readily bring their skills and expertise to the UK.

However, our ambitions on net zero, infrastructure and digitalisation are threatened if we do not have the number and diversity of people with engineering and technical skills needed to deliver them. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in school age education, hugely disrupted further and higher education, and risks reducing the diversity of young people going into engineering.”

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak Post Budget visit to Teesport. | Flickr/Number 10

“The Chancellor’s Budget understandably focussed on the health and economic recovery from COVID. There was a strong innovation theme, with support for innovative firms and the green economy, and this could shape an R&D-led recovery in the UK. Consultations on R&D tax credits and on unlocking pension funds to invest in R&D and innovation are welcome, as is support for small businesses navigating the visa system for the first time. These measures have all been called for by CaSE.

“However, for a Chancellor who wants the UK to be ‘at the forefront of the next scientific and technological revolutions’, announcements on science funding were notably scarce. There was no provision for the UK’s agreed participation in Horizon Europe, expected to cost around £2bn per annum, no specific measures to alleviate COVID pressure on UKRI’s budget, or support for research charities. Meeting these costs from the existing science budget would have an impact across the UK’s science and research activity.

“The UK’s strength in research and innovation can drive recovery and shape the future economy. But parts of the system have taken significant blows over the last year. For research and innovation to support UK recovery and growth, it must start from a strong foundation itself.”

IOP welcomes the government’s plans for an innovation-friendly Future Fund, a national infrastructure bank, and a detailed consultation on the competitiveness of R&D tax credits as ways to accelerate progress against the grand challenges facing the UK and of financing the green industrial revolution.

“The UK will need a highly skilled, diverse and educated workforce to deliver the projects and innovations necessary to power this new revolution. While the announcement of a new visa system for science superstars is positive, the government must not overlook the potential of communities in UK regions outside traditional scientific hubs. Young people in all corners of the UK are passionate about solving the challenges of improving healthcare, a growing population, decarbonising economies, and ensuring water, food and energy supplies.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak attends Cabinet meeting. | Flickr/Number 10

ON HEALTH

“Today’s budget understandably focussed on the need to support the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and to lay plans to rebuild the health and wealth of the UK.

“This government has shown a strong commitment to research and development (R&D) and this Budget included welcome initiatives designed to help achieve the government’s ambition of making the UK a science superpower. I welcome plans to make the immigration system more attractive to international talent, and new support through a new ‘Future Fund: Breakthrough’ for the most innovative, R&D intensive businesses. Even so, and whilst we recognise the enormous financial challenge posed by the pandemic, some urgent questions remain unanswered about how UK R&D can be made sustainable – especially research careers – and how overarching R&D targets will be met to ensure medical research can continue to drive our recovery.”

(Note: Professor Dame Johnson’s longer statement is available here.)


  • Hilary Reynolds, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC):

“Whilst relying on science and our world beating research base to bring us out of this current health crisis, government has chosen yet again not to provide any clear support for charity-funded medical research in the budget.

“The integral role medical research charities play in UK research is under huge threat from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without support now, the amount of research charities can afford to fund will continue to plummet, placing a generation of early career researchers at risk without funding. This is putting back progress in saving and improving lives by decades.

“We have continued to talk with the government, bringing to life the impact of reduced charity-funded research, and continue to hope that the government has listened and will provide some practical financial support from funding allocated in the autumn Spending Review.”

Chancellor Rishi leaving Number 11 to deliver the 2021 Budget. | Flickr/Number 10

The budget announcement has unfortunately not delivered on the NHS, social care or prevention funding, nor on further mitigation of the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic on an already underfunded health system pre-pandemic.

“The budget report announces an extra £3 billion to be spent on tackling the elective care backlog to fund one million procedures and diagnostics as well as address waiting times for mental health services. Our research shows that this is unlikely to address the care needs brought about the pandemic. NHS Confederation has projected waiting lists to reach 9.8 million by the end of 2020, requiring substantial increases in capacity just to reduce waiting lists. This is before we even consider the fact that due to prolonged waiting times these patients will require more intensive treatment with cost implications to care provision, or that socioeconomic inequalities brought about by the economic crisis will have a considerable impact on population health.

The freeze on alcohol duty is a counterproductive measure. Revenues from alcohol taxes have been found to generate jobs and income from which economic benefit offsets the economic losses from less alcohol spending. But more importantly, it impacts population health and generates a further strain on care provision. Public Health England has found alcohol and drug use to be the leading ill-health risk factor for those aged 15 to 49, and the fifth across all age groups, leading to decreased productivity of our workforce, through presenteeism and absenteeism, and premature mortality and morbidity. Taxes have been found to be a highly effective policy to mitigate excessive drinking, therefore this measure is likely to further aggravate population health, generate avoidable care costs and impact negatively the economy.”

Today’s Budget represents another missed opportunity to tackle the enormous societal and economic costs of dementia. The research community has been hit hard by COVID, and urgently needs delivery of the pledged ‘dementia moonshot’ to double research investment and kick-start progress towards treatments. Nor is there a plan for better, more sustainable care for people with dementia. Every time we fail to address these problems, they grow in size.

“The Chancellor is right to focus on the challenges of a post-COVID world. But no challenge is more pressing than the one posed by dementia – which is responsible for more deaths, and costs more, than any other disease.

It is vital that the Government now uses the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn to lay out its plan for how we will better care for people with dementia, and provide the funding required to support research into much-needed treatments.”

PM Boris Johnson Post Budget visit to Teesport. | Flickr/Number 10

The lack of additional structural funding for the NHS, beyond the commitment of expenditure to face the pandemic emergency, is disappointing given the large underfunding of the system. Healthcare expenditure in the UK was 43% lower than in Germany and 15% lower than in France, before the pandemic, after accounting for differences in purchasing power.

“There are major capacity constraints to be overcome in the NHS. The number of doctors, 2.8 per thousand population, is significantly lower than the EU average. The number of nurses has been decreasing in the past 10 years, contrary to what is happened in other European countries. The UK has the second lowest number of hospital beds per population in Europe. If these structural capacity constraints are not addressed, the NHS will fail to meet patient needs and expectations in a post-pandemic world.

Addressing healthcare capacity constraint cannot be postponed further. It will place additional demands on public finances, already under significant strain, but the risks involved in leaving the NHS underfunded are too great. A sensible use of consumption taxes may work both as a source of additional revenues and as an incentive for healthy and environmentally sustainable consumption. The freeze on alcohol duties, unfortunately, does not seem to go in the right direction.”


ON CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

  • Dr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at The Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London:

The budget was poor on specific green measures and felt almost like there was no net-zero target or declared climate emergency in the UK. This didn’t feel like a budget that was fit-for-purpose in driving an acceleration towards net-zero in any way.”

ON EDUCATION

It is disappointing that in a Budget focused on national recovery after the Covid pandemic so little mention has been made of the role of education. We believe that education is a vital part of the national recovery and that the Chancellor should have used this Budget to set out the government’s spending plan for catch-up support over the remainder of this parliament. We also hoped to see a commitment to give more financial support to schools and colleges for the significant additional costs incurred because of the pandemic. Instead, education was scarcely mentioned despite the government’s insistence that it is a national priority. This Budget was a missed opportunity to back up warm words with a concrete spending plan.

Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street for his annual budget. | Flickr/Number 10

It is short-sighted and disappointing that the Government continues to ignore the funding pressures the education sector faces. The Government has said schools are a “national priority”, yet this Budget has provided schools with no new resources to manage coronavirus. Once again this Government has failed to pay attention to the educational professionals who see first-hand, every day, the detrimental impact under-funding of our education system has on the children and young people they teach or care for.

“NEU research shows school spending power is over £2bn less now than it was in 2015-16 and the education sector has specific funding needs to pay for the additional costs of Covid-19. Additional supply costs amounted to £290m last term alone and the Government is offering very little support for this. Schools are losing £290m in lettings income per year, and the Government is offering no help with this. Maintained Nursery Schools are struggling to survive year on year without a long term funding settlement. The pandemic is stretching already overstretched budgets further. If the Government is serious about growing the economy and building a stronger society, it must prioritise education funding and provide the resources to support an education recovery plan as outlined by the NEU.

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“The past year has shone a light on the shocking reality of poverty in the UK. Even before the pandemic, 4.2 million children – the equivalent of 9 pupils in every class of 30 – were trapped in poverty. Recent research predicts the number of children growing up in poverty is rapidly approaching 5 million. The Government must act urgently to establish and invest in a cohesive strategy to eradicate child poverty from the UK to ensure that no child is left behind. The extension of Universal Credit top up credit of £20 per week for the next 6 months is a welcome move towards tackling systemic disadvantage and is something that should be made permanent.

The extension of the furlough scheme is obviously welcome, but the Chancellor continues to ignore obvious defects in the scheme; in particular its voluntary nature which means that groups of workers such as school supply staff are routinely excluded from it.”



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[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 4 March 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street to announce his Budget. | 3 March 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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