In fighting Coronavirus, for the Government and the rest of us, the most important things are saving lives and maintaining the strength of the NHS. This is clearly the Government’s position.
But beyond this, the Government will be wrestling with a mass of competing policy pressures: how can Ministers prevent economic damage and maintain order in society and indeed morale (which we now call mental health or wellbeing)? Their primary focus for the foreseeable future will be on health, but it won’t be their only focus. It cannot be.
Others have written intelligently and persuasively about the health challenge; not wanting to sound blasé about it, the reality is I don’t have the experience to add anything on this. Instead, I look here at the challenges Coronavirus will pose to the everyday lives of those people I’ve been writing about for the last few years: the mass of working families outside the prosperous South East.
The Government is already on to at least some of these challenges, with Rishi Sunak set to announce a range of economic and financial policies imminently. Even this highly selective list poses extraordinary challenges to Government.
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Town and city centres: If pubs, restaurants, cafes and other shops close nationwide, it’s difficult to see how the result won’t be devastating for the communities of many towns and small cities.
Already badly struggling, the closure of these businesses, even temporarily, will surely finish off many of these town and city centres as we currently know them. Even if banks, HMRC and local councils offer them favourable financial terms, as looks likely, they’ll still be hit by a catastrophic loss of custom that will make the equivalent of tax holidays irrelevant.
And with the falling away of custom, large-scale redundancies will be followed by closures. The Government has rightly worried about how to reinvigorate provincial towns and cities. As they pick this policy area up in the months ahead, there’ll surely be starting in an even worse position than they’re currently in. Honestly, on the current trajectory, in some places there could be almost nothing left.
Small businesses: What is true of smaller independent retailers within towns and cities will also be true of other small businesses in surrounding areas.
In the middle of a local, national and global health crisis, pretty much everything will become a “luxury good”. For example, many manufacturers will surely be pressured as markets in the UK and abroad dry up – again, even if this is only temporary.
Aside from manufacturers, sole traders like plumbers, electricians, builders, painters and others theoretically won’t even be allowed into many people’s homes. And the forgiving terms from banks won’t be able to solve the problem of plummeting income.
Crime and anti-social behaviour: As I’ve been writing about here for many months, crime and anti-social behaviour is of massive and increasing concern across England.
People feel their town and city centres are in decline not simply because shops are closing, but because they’re seeing an increase in open drug use and drug dealing and everything that comes from that.
If retail centres go into further decline, and if the police are even more thinly spread (and indeed only going after the most serious crimes), it’s easy to imagine how towns and cities might feel more threatening and not less. By the time things return to “normal”, what will these retail centres and our parks physically look like?
Neighbourly behaviour: It’s not a cliche; outside of London, people are much more likely to know their neighbours and they’re more likely to look out for each other casually.
That said, most people still live their own lives in their own homes – and many people do so on their own. They do their own shopping, travel around by bus and car on their own, and so on. It’s hard to read the Government’s exact intention on protecting old people; on first hearing it sounds as if they’re saying the old should stay in, with basically no exceptions other than extreme emergencies.
Listen again, and there’s a little more wriggle room. We have to accept the Government’s advice, based on the experience of other countries; but it would be wrong not to see that very draconian advice could see many older people completely cut off without obvious support.
Again, while support networks outside London are probably more extensive, they can’t replace the families that many people just don’t have. You have to wonder how sustainable this is. Time will tell.
Cancelled summer holidays: Who cares about a cancelled holiday, if the intention is to protect people’s health? Almost everyone would agree with that.
But the mass cancellation of summer holidays will nonetheless be a big issue for people across the country. Not only do vast numbers of people save for months to pay for their annual holiday, but they look forward to two weeks away almost from the time they get back to their local airport from their last holiday. And they will surely be looking forward to a break from the stresses of the last few weeks and months.
The impact of Coronavirus on people’s mental health – particularly those in isolation – has been well-documented. Of course, people will put this into perspective if large numbers of people are seriously ill, but it will nonetheless be a source of upset and depression for many.
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This is by no means an exhaustive list and arguably not the most important. I’ve just listed some of those that are going to be top of people’s minds.
But what will the impact be on those on the streets? Smaller in number of course but who need special care. What about the impact on domestic violence, with everyone stuck in their own homes? What about the impact on those with serious but non-life threatening health problems?
With all this in mind, the Government’s mitigating factors will surely change endlessly over the coming months. And at some point we’re surely likely to hear more about trade offs and least-worst choices. The health of the economy after all is what builds all the hospitals, GP surgeries and everything else in the first place.