Dan Boucher was the lead Conservative Candidate for Wales in the 2019 European Elections and stood for Swansea East in the 2017 general election.
The impact of the Coronavirus on Britain’s social capital has been – certainly in my experience – remarkably positive. In some ways it was difficult to anticipate such an outcome a month ago because this was clearly a crisis in which we would have to pull together, somewhat paradoxically, by pulling apart into self-isolation. The last few weeks, however, have demonstrated how it is possible to square this circle, building a greater sense of togetherness even as we withdraw into our homes.
I live on an old fashioned street in Swansea where one row of terraced houses faces another row of terraced houses separated by a road, lined with parked cars. Before the outbreak of the virus we had contact with our immediate neighbours but really no contact with folk on our street beyond that. The advent of the crisis has changed all this with the development of a street WhatsApp group connecting us with our neighbours from one end of the street to the other.
In the last two weeks, people have delivered food to families on the street who they have never spoken to before. On Thursdays evenings at 8 pm the doors open and parents with their children in pyjamas stand in their doorways and clap the NHS, shouting things across the street to their neighbours, admiring the rainbows in their windows. It has already been agreed that when the crisis is over we will have a street party and get to talk to each other properly, in many cases for the first time.
The challenge going forward will be to think of creative ways to sustain this reinvigorated social capital in the long term once normality has returned. As my wife put it to me somewhat ironically earlier this week: “We need to be very careful that after the end of all this we don’t go straight back into self-isolation again” – a poignant observation that demonstrates just how it has been possible to pull together even as we have stayed apart.
If one works on the assumption that rain constitutes ‘bad’ weather, then it is easy to see why the rainbow has become emblematic of some unexpected positives, like enhanced social capital, that have come with this crisis. You can’t have rainbows without rain. No one would wish for this crisis in a million years, and I speak as someone who has already lost a friend, but from a public policy perspective as well as seeking to fight the virus with everything we’ve got, we must also look for the rainbows and think about how to give them a legacy going forward.
One of the big public policy questions that presents itself during lockdown, is: ‘What are the nine million or so who have been/are being furloughed doing with their time?’ To libertarians, this might seem like an indecently “nanny state” question, but in paying people not to work the Government has rightly embarked on what is effectively a massive social experiment.
Placing people in this abnormal situation is absolutely the right thing to do, but having done so it is appropriate to express concern about how people are using their time, not with a view to seeking to dictate what they should do in the privacy of their own homes, but to nudge them into positive activities and away from danger. After all, if it was not for the highly unusual government intervention, people wouldn’t be staying at home all day.
For some, there is no question about what they must do with their time. They must home educate their children, which constitutes a huge challenge for parents, especially those who have not been furloughed and are expected to work from home. However, what about those who have been furloughed and have no children to home educate?
Nature abhors a vacuum. While people who have been furloughed will not be doing their paid work, they will not flourish doing nothing. Happy humans need to be creative. If they are not then this arrangement risks all manner of difficulties. Anyone working in social policy will have noted the very considerable concerns expressed by different charities about the potential for bad. There is huge concern about what is happening in relation to domestic violence, with people in self-isolation with abusive family members.
Connected to this there are real concerns about the impact of greater consumption of online pornography, on pornography addiction and the use of victims of trafficking in pornography as it is harder to use them to sell sex at this time. Then there is real concern about those with gambling addictions stuck at home with 24-7 online gambling temptation, and indeed concern for those who might get drawn into a gambling addiction for the first time during this season precisely because they are at home all day and online gambling opportunity has become so ubiquitous.
Into this context, there is arguably a strong public policy imperative for the Government to set creativity challenges for people who have been furloughed and who don’t have children to home educate. It is in this regard history has something to teach us.
During 1665 when the bubonic plague struck, Isaac Newton was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. All his lessons were cancelled and he retired to the comparative safety of his countryside home in rural Lincolnshire. His time there proved to be extraordinarily productive such that, notwithstanding the tremendous suffering associated with that year, it is known in scientific circles as the Annus Mirabilis, or the “Year of Wonders.’
In the year of the Plague, Newton’s achievements constituted an extraordinary series of rainbows. It was while in his seventeenth century self-isolation that Newton observed the apple falling from the tree and developed his laws of motion and gravity. During the same period he also developed his theories on calculus and optics. The world was never the same again.
We may not all be Isaac Newtons, but we are all creative in different ways whether in the garden, doing DIY, painting a picture, making a YouTube video, writing poetry, or a book, etc. Indeed, in this internet age the opportunities for being creative without leaving the house are far greater than was ever the case in 1665.
In this context there is an argument that those parts of government that are not completely absorbed with fighting the virus should be thinking of ways of encouraging positive, value-adding creativity, be it in science, music, the arts, history, gardening etc., both to minimise the scope for negatives flowing from the vacuum and also because, after this is all over, we would greatly benefit if it gives rise to similar bursts of creativity as enjoyed by Newton in 1665. Indeed, an intentional policy to harness this through a series of prizes or other incentives during the crisis, might well help give rise to more of what we might term ‘creativity rainbows’ than those that made their presence felt in the year that the young Newton’s lessons were cancelled.
There is no getting away from, or minimising, the huge traumas of this year, but we must fight on and in doing so look for the rainbows and adopt creative public policy solutions that make them more likely.