THE only thing economists can be sure about is the past and what we know is that they can never agree on how to interpret that. Speculating about the future is bound to be contentious, but so what? What’s wrong with a little contention? In that case, what might 2022 bring?

Some things seem very likely. Gas prices will, for example, increase. There is little doubt about that.

Taxes will as well because the Westminster-controlled National Insurance charges increase in April, thanks to Rishi Sunak.

We can also be sure that the introduction of new customs rules in January will be deeply disruptive for trade. The true impact of Brexit will finally be seen. If increasing choice was the mantra for all governments from 1980 onwards then there is no doubt that Brexit will be removing some of it from January 2022 as cost and the burden of red tape close down many markets.

We can also be sure that supply chain disruptions will continue into 2022. The likelihood that anything is going to get economically easier looks to be very low.

Despite that, what any of this means for inflation is uncertain because of the biggest risk of all that we face: Covid. This continues to pursue its own path. Some think it a fading threat. Others are quite sure that the Omicron variant is just another unfolding chapter in a long running saga. I admit to being in the second camp, at least as things stand.

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Like everyone, I wish that the threat from this pandemic would go away. The uncertainty that it creates is harming far too many aspects of life. In the economy that uncertainty translates into an unwillingness on peoples’ part to spend. That reduces inflationary pressure, but harms peoples’ prospects for enjoying life. Personally, I value enjoyment more than I worry about inflation.

That then leads to the question as to whether this threat is the one thing that we can really do something about? We all know that boosters were meant to achieve this, but when I read what epidemiologists have to say it is not clear that they will in anything but the short term. It looks likely that being jagged quite often is going to be a fact of life for some time to come.

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However, when I look at history it seems to me that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution to this crisis. In the 19th century waterborne disease was the great threat to city life. What history tells us is that it was not doctors who solved that problem. Engineers did that. They delivered the greatest advance in public health in that century by building the water and sewage systems that both delivered clean water and took away the waste. The success of the modern city was based upon that single spectacular advance.

Reading the work of the epidemiologists who, it seems to me, best understand this current pandemic I think that a similar advance is possible. The members of Independent Sage do, for example, persistently stress the importance of clean air when it comes to tackling Covid, which we now know to be an airborne disease.

What they say is that without that clean air Covid cannot be beaten. With clean air they suggest that goal is possible. As evidence now shows, what are called HEPA filtration ventilators can deliver a massive transformation in air quality. This was demonstrated in a recent study at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge

The quality of the air in hospital wards was dramatically increased by the use of these filter systems. As a result the amount of Covid circulating in that air was dramatically reduced. Patience faced a reduced risk of catching Covid, as did staff and visitors.

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The obvious conclusion is that if these filters were available in every hospital ward in the UK the chance of the NHS being overwhelmed would be reduced, dramatically.

If they were then made available to schools the risk within the biggest area of Covid transmission could also be greatly reduced.

Add in the requirement that all indoor hospitality locations should use these filters and suddenly we could socialise again with very little risk.

What would this miracle cost? One estimate suggested that every school in England could have one of these filters in every classroom at a cost of about £140 million, and that was based upon the most expensive Dyson filter, when cheaper options are available.

Adding up the cost for the whole of the UK in that case my suggestion is that installing filters would cost a bit over £1 billion. In Scotland that might be £80 million. There would be the running costs to consider, but they seem remarkably low.

As an economist I look at this and think that it seems to be one of the best bargains that I have ever seen. For what is in overall economic cost terms a tiny amount we might be able to get our economy and our lives back, and these things are so simple to build that even children can assemble them from kits.

So what do I want for 2022? Investment in clean air would be my first demand. I can think of nothing else that could deliver a greater economic transformation during the coming year.

Making clean air a statutory right would be my second hope. This might deliver us long term security against Covid.

Seeing the SNP government demand the funding to do this from Westminster would be my third hope. What has it got to lose by doing so?

When we remember that it was engineers who solved the threat of waterborne disease surely this has to be worth a try? It is the only economic upside that I can find right now and we are badly in need of them.

The National: