It is natural to think about the next few months of the pandemic as ‘the crisis’ and ‘the world afterwards’.
It may be more useful to think of three stages:
- the immediate crisis
- the transitional period
- the emergence of a new normal.
The transition period may last some time and it is important to start exploring the principles that could and should govern it. Emergency powers and measures aren’t right for an extended period of time.
Democracy, transparency, devolution, protecting health, and protecting the most vulnerable should be some of our priority principles for transition.
Getting from the crisis to a new normal
Here are my assumptions, based on what seems to be the current evidence:
- The lockdown will prove effective but once government relaxes the rules and we become less careful cases will rise again with strong grounds for concern about a second wave.
- Despite the risks, government will soon have to allow a controlled move from complete lockdown. Partly because many people simply won’t be able to cope with more than few weeks at a time, and because the wider impact, especially on the economy, will become too great.
- We will enter an extended period of transitional arrangements – between normal life and lockdown. The government will assert its need to tighten or loosen the rules depending on infection rates and the capacity of health systems.
- This transitional period may last for an extended period, perhaps a year or more.
- In the current emergency period we are generally happy for government to do whatever it needs to do to protect us. Government and its agencies are also permissive in terms of allowing public, private and charitable organisations to respond and adapt.
If these 5 assumptions are correct, there is one more:
- The arrangements for an emergency are neither adequate nor legitimate for governing an extended transition. Emergency rules for a long period of time would give unwarranted power to governments and could lead to a dangerous backlash.
In an extended transition we need processes and principles to guide policy decisions and shape organisational and individual responsibilities.
These should be effective in governing the transition, which means they will need to be both temporary and robust. But we should also be using the transition to shape the recovery that will carry us into a new normal; what the RSA refers to as ‘building bridges to the future’.
PRINCIPLES FOR GOVERNING THE TRANSITION AND BUILDING BRIDGES TO THE FUTURE
What might some of these principles and processes be? Here are five to start with:
The public should have direct input to decision making
Our resilience over the next period rests strongly on the public trusting government and agreeing to abide by its decisions and advice. The imperative for public engagement in decisions is not just democratic, it will help produce better decisions that are more likely to be supported.
Deliberative methodologies – which can work online – could be used in relation to broad questions around spending priorities, or more specific questions such as how the government might design and implement a system to verify that some people have been tested for immunity.
No one should be either forced or incentivised to behave in ways that are dangerous to their health and the health of others
We are all in awe of our many key workers especially in the face of the risks they are clearly taking. It is an absolute priority to reduce those risks.
We have also seen a backlash against employers who have pressured people to come to work despite the risks. These are difficult issues but when we move into transition they could become even more complex.
Without the scope to develop or enforce detailed new regulations in every area of life we need a principles-based approach. For example:
- If more public transport comes back online but people are discouraged from sitting within two metres of each other, how is the capacity to be rationed?
- If restaurants and bars start to re-open, how can we get the right balance of those businesses being able to operate while not risking either public or staff?
- From parking restrictions to ID processes, how do regulatory systems operate while putting health first?
Rules will need to be flexible, but transparency should be mandatory
From state-aid to competition policy from data privacy to charitable purposes, managing the transition will require us to abandon or bend existing rules (indeed it already has).
Given the seriousness of the situation, flexibility in the public interest is justified. But it also creates dangers (again, in terms of both over-reach and public backlash).
It is vital therefore that where rules and regulations are being suspended or ignored the public should be told and offered a proper explanation. The same principles should apply to the behaviour of other organisations, for example charities like the RSA, in relation to their own rules and processes.
The needs of the most vulnerable should take priority
The crisis is reflecting and deepening social inequalities. Older people and sicker people are more in danger.
From staying at home to not working, restrictions hit people harder if they are poorer and more economically insecure.
The data about higher infection and mortality rates among the black community in America are a shocking example of how injustice can be magnified. Good health systems – and here the UK can be proud – treat people on the basis of need. The same principle should govern all policy during a transition.
Policy should be devolved where possible
National emergencies have a natural and justifiable centralising tendency.
This makes it all the more important that wherever it is possible to let localities, communities and organisations to make their own arrangements (following principles such as the ones I have outlined) they should be allowed to do so.
If distancing is being observed in a park it can be left open, if not the council should be able to close it for a cooling off period. The more policy aligns with our sense of what is right and necessary and supports what communities are managing to do together the more effective it will be. Also, as we are seeing globally, experimentation provides invaluable insight into what does and doesn’t work.
Transition is a chance to test ways of thinking and acting
It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that these are not also principles that I would like to see carried into a post pandemic world.
A long transition will be extremely difficult, and many mistakes will be made, but it can also be a testing ground for the ways of thinking and acting we need to thrive in the 21st century.
This is the latest in the RSA's Bridges to the Future series, exploring prospects for change in a post-coronavirus world. Read more in our first blog in this series and listen to the Bridges to the Future podcast. Over the coming weeks we will be publishing briefings, podcasts, blogs and hosting more online events in this series.
Less business travel, extended employment rights, move towards Universal Basic Income, accelerate energy shift, strengthen state, and new ways of thinking about change.
Julian Sheather FRSA
RSA Fellow Julian Sheather examines the ethics of government responses to coronavirus – how can we balance protecting people and allowing as much normal life as possible to go on?