COVID-19 Committee Contents

Chapter 2: Pandemic effects: Accelerating an era of change

15.Even before the pandemic, this was an era of fast and accelerating change on a huge number of fronts. The risk of climate change requires fundamental transformation in our economy, from the way we generate energy to how we eat. Demographic change is sweeping the West: a combination of an ageing population and increasing diversity, as migration continues to rise, globally. Technology is transforming our society too. Vast, global companies are stretching our understanding of the relationship between state and corporation, and challenging the way we think about competition policy. AI and machine learning are creating new challenges for regulators and consumers. Access to information has been radically democratised by the internet, but bringing with it fake news, radicalisation, and a new platform for inter-state information warfare. Global power continues to shift eastward; trade patterns are shifting within, and between, global regions, and the international, rules-based order is coming under increased pressure.

16.The global shock of COVID-19 is not occurring in isolation: it is layering its impacts on top of all of this existing transformation.

17.COVID-19 has had an immediate disruptive effect at every level of society and our economy, and has had huge, profound impacts, from the loss of life to lockdowns. But this Committee’s remit was to look at the long-term consequences, which are far harder to categorise and to model. It quickly became apparent that relatively few of the long-term impacts have been triggered exclusively by the pandemic. In fact, we identified four kinds of impact:

18.The small number of changes triggered by the pandemic can be dealt with swiftly. We may see lasting improvements in personal hygiene habits or improvements to sick pay to reduce the numbers of people working while infectious. Less welcome shifts, like hate crime against people of Chinese ethnicity, or new tactics by scammers trying to exploit people’s health fears, may also endure. These changes are worthy of scrutiny and appropriate Government response, but they are incidental when compared to the other trends shaping our era in which the pandemic is playing a more complex role.

19.There were a huge number of issues we explored, and on which we received evidence, where the pandemic is accelerating existing trends—trends like those set out above, which already posed huge intellectual, ideological and practical challenges for the state. This includes the most obvious consequences of the pandemic: the transition to digital retail, work, socialising and public service delivery, and the vast number of economic, social and geo-spatial consequences that flow from it. It also includes scepticism about free trade and a shift in procurement patterns and supply chains away from “just in time” delivery. It includes increasing demand for health and care—long since predicted but now manifesting itself in backlogs for treatment. It includes the growing importance of mental health as a public policy priority. Finally, it includes labour shortages—anticipated as a result of the post-Brexit paradigm shift towards a new economic model—but now exacerbated by peri-pandemic departures of non-UK citizens from the country.

20.The third group of impacts we looked at were problems that were already endemic in our society, but which are becoming substantially worse as a result of the disease, and/or the measures to suppress it. The pandemic is clearly demonstrating the extent to which health is determined by socio-economic factors in the UK, as well as “exacerbating” socio-economic, health and racial inequality, financial exclusion, and precarity at the bottom of the labour market. Labour shortages in sectors like agriculture, care and deliveries are being exacerbated by the departure of many non-UK citizens during the pandemic; we do not yet know how many will return. We can also include backlogs in a host of public services within this category. In particular, the court service and the NHS, both of which were already struggling to keep up with rising demand, have the most substantial challenge ahead if they are to catch up.

21.Finally, a number of witnesses characterised some of the issues that are visible during the pandemic as having been “exposed” by the pandemic. These include chronic problems in our care system, widespread food poverty and the day-to-day struggles faced by disabled people. They include the poor value of many university degrees and the low rates of social security protections offered by our benefits system, when compared with many other comparable nations. These and many more problems with the way our society works have come to public, media, and Government attention during the pandemic. Some of these were also exacerbated by the pandemic, but not all.

22.In other words, the pandemic is triggering, accelerating, exacerbating and exposing a tidal wave of new policy challenges that threaten to overwhelm systems of government that were already struggling to keep up. We urge policy makers not to despair in the light of these circumstances. The pandemic is worsening many of the problems we face, but it is also showing us what is possible when individuals, communities and nations work together. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must do so with a renewed spirit and commitment to “Build Back Better” and return to the nation’s problems with ambition and optimism about resolving them. We argue below that a new focus on resilience and wellbeing could help us to do so.

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