There really is such a thing as society.
So declared the Prime Minister in a tribute to the 20,000 former NHS staff who answered the call to return to work and 750,000 members of the public volunteering to help the health service.1
The Prime Minister had earlier described this as ‘a call to colours’. Just as in war, the pandemic has brought out the very best in people, and sometimes the very worst. However, it is equally true that after this society will not be the same again. How it changes depends on us. We can either react to events and allow them to shape us – or we can set out a vision now for a society that builds on the positive and noble things the last few weeks have brought out, but also addresses some of the underlying weaknesses the pandemic has exposed.
Freedom under the Law
It would be all too easy for some of the draconian emergency measures we have chosen to accept during this crisis to be cited as precedents by some future government intent on imposing its own agenda. We must be clear, in this country, unlike some parts of continental Europe, you are free to do anything unless the law specifically forbids it. This is a fundamental part of the British approach to human rights, which limits the government’s ability to interfere in ordinary people’s lives and goes back to the Magna Carta.
Our National Health Service
Ten years ago, the NHS was sick, not primarily from a lack of funding – although as the population continues to increase and grow older more funding will always be needed – but from aspects of its management culture. At its worst this was epitomised by the Staffordshire Hospital scandal and a Care Quality Commission report which found that some elderly patients in half of NHS hospitals were not being properly fed or cared for because of a lack of ‘compassion’, with paperwork being prioritised over patients. There was a real risk that a culture of ‘compassion’ had been replaced by one of ‘compliance’ – or even worse, ‘cosmetic compliance’ – merely creating the appearance of doing the right thing.
What we are seeing today is the exact opposite with thousands of NHS staff and volunteers sacrificially going to work despite very real fears of becoming infected themselves. The issue we need to think about is how to ensure that after this crisis is over that compassion is properly embedded in the NHS management culture. That is likely to involve some significant thinking about how we commission services and how we measure what is really important in healthcare.2
Before the pandemic arrived the government had made clear it recognised that there were significant imbalances in public spending that must be addressed between those areas closest to London and those further away. However, the pandemic has revealed a disturbing aspect to this in the number of intensive care beds available. Shockingly, the south west, has a shortfall per head of population nearly six times greater than the London area, despite having the UK’s highest proportion of elderly people. The Treasury rule book which allocates public spending simply has to change.3
The Local Economy
While supermarkets and online retailers may even pick up business during the current crisis, small independent shops who already lacked the buying power of the large chain stores could simply cease to exist in many places. That could devastate town centres leaving rows of empty shops or, at best, identikit town centres across the country as mini versions of chain stores such as Tesco Express take over reducing both consumer choice and the individual character of towns. It is not simply financial help from the Chancellor that small shops need, but a change in planning law. Creating a new category of ‘local shops’ for shops with, for example, fewer than six stores, would allow local councils to use their local development plans to encourage independent local shops and set what they feel would be a helpful level for chain stores.
Having your children at home for months on end will have been a nightmare for some parents. But it will be an eyeopener for others, who will have realised that it is parents who are primarily responsible for their children’s education. Most of us of course find it very helpful indeed to delegate much of that responsibility to the state! However, months of homeschooling is likely to lead to far more parents rightfully challenging some of the social engineering measures that various governments periodically try to impose on the school system. Politicians of all parties will need to pay much more respect to the primary role of parents in educating their children.
Rest and Work/Family Life Balance
Just as the Staffordshire Hospitals scandal pointed to aspects of the NHS which had forgotten who they existed for, so the advent of mass working from home is likely to shine a spotlight on rest and work/family life balance. Or, to put it another way – why do we go out to work, work ever longer hours and spend multiple hours per week commuting to do so? The advent of large-scale homeworking is likely to cause many people, who have never had the time before, to reflect on such questions. Even from a purely economic perspective, it may actually be more productive if we commute less, while environmental studies done before and after the pandemic are likely to highlight significant benefits such as reduced air pollution levels.
A Less Secular Society
One of the effects of great crisis whether wars or epidemics has often been to cause people to look beyond the material aspects of life to the spiritual. In his superb The Making of the British Army, Brigadier Allan Mallinson observes that one of three major lessons the army drew from World War 1 “was the recognition of the ‘moral’ (non-material) element of combat and therefore the need for spiritual sustenance of the soldier – from which the Chaplains Department emerged as a significant element of the ‘moral component’ of fighting power .”4
Even before the lockdown formally began even Atheists, such as Simon Heffer, were asking why the Church of England was not providing more overt spiritual sustenance in this crisis.5 Many people are all too aware of the decline of older traditional, often liberal churches. However, one of the great unnoticed facts of the last decade has been the rapid growth of newer churches, often among young urban professionals, ethnic minorities and prodigals who have come from entirely unchurched backgrounds.
What we are seeing, whether in terms of formal volunteering or simply an increase in good neighbourliness, is fundamentally good. It is actually part of what David Cameron called ‘the Big Society’, but it goes deeper than this. That neighbourliness and community spirit is what Burke called ‘the little platoons’ that give us our sense of community identity and through that link us into our national identity. So, the challenge for government is not only how to nudge people to continue doing so after the current crisis abates, but how to create the conditions which give them the time and ability to be able to.
Make no mistake, the government’s handling of this crisis has been quite extraordinary. In fact, it is breathtaking to look back at the sheer level of detail the government has dealt with in the last few weeks from setting up brand new hospitals from scratch to postponing MOTs by six months. All this when only months ago it was actually being claimed it would take years for the UK to deliver Brexit! Yet, as Churchill discovered to his cost, it is not enough to lead the country to victory. We must also have a vision for the country afterwards. Now is the time for the government to give people hope that good can come even out of this tragedy.
Dr Martin Parsons is the author of the newly published Good for Society: Christian Values and Conservative Politics has been a frequent contributor to a number of current affairs media outlets. He works as an independent consultant on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
- Matt Honeycombe-Foster ‘Boris Johnson says UK’s response to coronavirus response shows there is ‘such a thing as society’ PoliticsHome 30 March 2020 <https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/boris-johnson-says-coronavirus-response-shows-there-is-such-a-thing-as-society-in-rebuke-to-margaret-thatcher> [accessed 21 April 2020].
- ‘Timeline: Stafford Hospital in crisis 2007-2010’ BBC 8 November 2010 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/stoke/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8493000/8493964.stm> [accessed 21 April 2020].
- Paul Nuki ‘How huge regional differences in intensive care bed numbers threaten coronavirus postcode lottery: Those living in rural areas, the south west and midlands are most vulnerable, while London is best equipped’ Daily Telegraph 19 March 2020 <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/huge-regional-differences-intensive-care-bed-numbers-threaten/> [accessed 21 April 2020].
- Allan Mallinson The Making of the British Army (London:Bantam,2009):434.
- Simon Heffer ‘A nation confronting its own mortality needs spiritual leadership. So where is Justin Welby?’ Daily Telegraph 15 March 2020 <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/15/nation-confronting-mortality-needs-spiritual-leadership-justin> [accessed 21 April 2020].