From THE TABLET, 4 June 2020

Covid-19 and its aftermath

Having fallen short so badly in their handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has left the United Kingdom with one of the highest death rates from the disease in the world, Boris Johnson and his chief policy adviser, Dominic Cummings, cannot be trusted with the Herculean task ahead – the renewal of the United Kingdom and the rebuilding of its economy in the aftermath of the epidemic.

The disruptive and traumatic experience through which Britain is passing has no peacetime precedent, but two examples in the last century can offer useful guidance. In 1918 Lloyd George announced a radical platform which called for “homes fit for heroes”, and jobs likewise. After the Second World War the government led by Clement Attlee was inspired by the Beveridge Report to found the modern welfare state, together with the creation, in the same spirit, of the National Health Service and the implementation of the 1944 Education Act.

Attlee largely succeeded where Lloyd George had largely failed. What Lloyd George lacked was the clear and detailed set of workable plans that Attlee benefitted from. Has the time come to start work on something similar to the Beveridge Report, to answer afresh the key questions of the moment: what are the “Five Wants” of the twenty-first century, the giants of deprivation which stalk the land today, which it is the duty of the state to attend to?

Like a bolt of lightning exposing the hidden corners of a dark landscape, the pandemic has illuminated serious flaws and injustices in the social fabric. One is the need to reverse the disastrous mantra of the Thatcher years, “private good, public bad”, at least to the extent of recognising that public services provide the essential foundation without which the private sector cannot operate. If the NHS had not been starved of money over the last decade, industry and commerce might not have been brought so suddenly to a hard stop when the pandemic hit.

More fundamentally, why is service to the common good valued less than wealth creation? Why has executive pay soared while nurses, for instance, have been so poorly paid that some have had to use food banks? Why are so many British children badly housed and living in poverty? Why has the residential care of the elderly not been properly financed? Why is the British prison population the highest in Europe? Why did only a third of cabinet ministers go to state schools, where 93 per cent of the population were educated?

After Beveridge, the one notable non-government initiative to ask hard questions of this sort was the Church of England report, Faith in the City, in 1985. Perhaps something with even wider scope is now needed, to address the problems coronavirus has uncovered and to fill the policy vacuum for the period of recovery and renewal that lies ahead. To leave the post-epidemic reshaping and renewal of the nation purely to the whims and prejudices of Messrs Johnson and Cummings would be asking for trouble.

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