My Lords, I want to use my time in praise of a spirit of optimism. It is shown by many people, and there is an abundance of medical evidence to prove that having an optimistic outlook boosts the immune system of individuals—something that I am banking on. I declare that I am an optimist; even my blood group is B positive.
As far as we are concerned, I believe that optimism can also boost the immune system of our economy as a whole. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last week:
“We will get through this—together … We will rise to this challenge.” —[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/20; col. 278.]
Rising to the challenge is, indeed, the need of the hour. It reminds us that resilience in overcoming adversity begins in the mind. Whatever fate has in store for us, the impacts will be far less severe and shorter in duration if we pull together and help each other to get through it. Rising to the challenge will be easier if we maintain that optimistic spirit. In my view, one of the finest books ever written was Optimism, published in 1903. In it, optimism is described as
“the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”
The author was a young Helen Keller, who had just become the first deafblind student to graduate from university with a degree anywhere. Any person who has ever stood for election, any athlete who has ever competed in a race or any businessperson who has ever set up a business knows the truth of her words. So where is the hope and confidence in the current situation?
Let me start with confidence. Confidence speaks of remembering where we have come from and what we have. It reminds us that we have come through many challenges far worse than this in our long and illustrious history. Had this disease struck a year ago, it would have found our nation and our Parliament divided; it would have found a hamstrung Government in the midst of an acrimonious debate about Brexit. But all that changed on
Had this crisis struck 11 years ago, it would have found us still reeling from the aftermath of the global banking crisis. Instead, we have had almost 10 years of economic growth, bringing borrowing under control and seeing some of the highest employment levels in our history. There is no doubt that our economy is in much better shape than it was and is more capable of withstanding these shocks.
We have a National Health Service which I believe is the envy of the world. It is our front line in the fight against this virus; we could not have a better one. Added to this, the Chancellor made a pledge in the Budget Statement, saying that
“whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus, it will get. Whether it is research for a vaccine, recruiting thousands of returning staff or supporting our brilliant doctors and nurses—whether it is millions of pounds or billions of pounds—whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS.”—[
That should give our incredible NHS staff and all of us great confidence in facing this crisis.
Next, we have produced some of the greatest scientists. In his speech, the Chancellor mentioned Newton, Hodgkin and Turing. He could have added Faraday, Fleming, Darwin, Lister, Jenner, Ross, Davy, Crick, Hawking, Goodall and many more. The UK is home to two of the top three universities in the world; one of them, Cambridge, has produced more Nobel laureates than the country of France. The steam locomotive, television, telephone, electric lightbulb, computer and world wide web were all developed by British scientists. The greatest medical breakthroughs of all time—in nursing care and hospital safety, germ theory, IVF, the smallpox vaccine, penicillin and DNA—were all developed by British scientists and clinicians. If someone is going to come up with a vaccine to protect the world from this virus or diseases like it, my money is on the solution being found here. That is why we can be confident.
What about hope? Hope is all about being positive. It reminds us that we should not let what we cannot do stop us doing what we can. Many sections of the economy will adapt to home-working, thus: raising productivity; reducing pressures on public transport systems; tackling the housing crisis by reducing the need for people to crowd into big cities, especially in London; tackling the effects of climate change by reducing the need to travel and lessening congestion on our roads; and levelling up by moving more high-paid, high-skilled jobs to the regions.
As a result of this paradigm shift, we will need to ensure that we have greater connectivity—one moment of caution. One area in the world in which we still lag behind is broadband and mobile speeds, where we rank 34th and 26th respectively. I welcome the Government’s announcement of £5 billion to get gigabyte-capable fibre-optic broadband across the country. This is certainly what we need to continue being a technology superpower, but it is far from the reality at present. In many parts of the country, even here in London, many people struggle to get download speeds of 10 megabytes per second, let alone 1,000. Speed is indeed of the essence, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, reminded us.
The worst part of any crisis is the feeling of being battered by events and not having any control. That is far from the case. We might remember the words of the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
The Chinese character for crisis is composed of two characters. The first is for danger; the second is for opportunity. We need to continue to seek and grasp the many opportunities before us. In doing so, we will find renewed optimism, hope and confidence so that, together, we can not only rise to this challenge but emerge from it stronger.