Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.
The paradox of this pandemic is that, far from keeping us apart, it is bringing us closer together.
Last Monday, when official advice placed 1.5 million people into self-isolation and prohibited the rest of the population from coming within two metres of each other, I feared the most insidious effect of the virus could be the state-enforced solitude. Numerous studies associate loneliness with a 50 per cent increase in mortality, a much higher multiplier than the virus itself.
That trepidation lasted only three days. The outpouring of appreciation for NHS carers, from millions of balconies, porches and stairwells last Thursday evening, revealed a national solidarity many us have not felt in decades. The fact that just shy of three-quarters of a million people, one per cent of the population, volunteered for the NHS volunteer responder scheme shows how many want to serve in the national effort, not just applaud it.
A deep reservoir of community and contribution, obscured in normal times, has been uncovered by our present situation. Yes, media stories have focused on the selfish stockpiling of a minority, but the silent majority are worried about others. In fact, new polling data published today by Onward reveals that more people are worried about the health of their community than their own physical and mental health, and even that of their immediate family.
This community spirit extends beyond health to the jobs and economic impact. Only half (52 per cent) of people are worried about their own jobs, compared to 74 per cent worried about those of their family and 84 per cent of people who worry about the jobs and incomes of their wider community. Just one in ten (12 per cent) of people say they are not concerned about local jobs and incomes, a third of the number who say they are not concerned about their own economic future.
Like those offering to transport supplies, medicine and patients for the NHS, the majority of people are willing to stand up and be counted in the coming weeks. Three-fifths of us, 61 per cent, say we are likely to check on elderly neighbours if the crisis continues, while half say we will deliver food to those who are self-isolating. Two-fifths, 42 per cent, say they will speak to socially isolated neighbours by phone or video link. There is an army ready to ensure that isolation does not claim more victims than infection.
Weekend news reports about a package of measures to support charities and communities indicate ministers recognise the need for some kind of “social stimulus”, to compliment the economic and public health support announced to date. This is welcome and would be popular.
Two-thirds (69 per cent) of people want tax rules relaxed to encourage more people to give to good causes over the coming months, and a similar proportion (66 per cent) support taxpayers directly subsidising the wages of charity workers. Well over half (59 per cent) think charities should be mobilised to administer immunity in the community, something that may become necessary as the 17.5 million tests ordered by the NHS come online.
These kind of measures will be necessary in the coming weeks, to support voluntary activity at a time when the NHS needs to divert non-related demand, the police fall back on civic cooperation to maintain social distancing, and local communities are into their eighth, ninth of tenth week of social segregation. This pandemic, much like its predecessors and the wars frequently evoked by politicians, will be subdued by everyone working together in the spirit of shared sacrifice and service.
This will be more important in some places than others. Our findings reveal respondents who do not trust their neighbours to support them through the crisis are twice as likely to say they will not offer any support to their community as part of the Covid-19 response. If we do not try to strengthen social trust where it is lacking, already strong neighbourhoods may come out of this crisis even stronger as the fabric of Britain’s most atomised places becomes even more frayed.
The Government has acted with alacrity to wrap its arms around the British economy, keeping businesses safe for the moment until they can be safely released. It should act with equal vigour to unleash the power of ordinary British people, who like Burke’s little platoons are lining up to be deployed in the battle against the virus.
If they can, it will not just help many survive this pandemic, but build a society that is more connected within neighbourhoods and across generations – and more self-sufficient in the long-run. That is something all Conservatives should welcome.