After Covid-19, what will the ‘new normal’ look like?

Professor Fred Robinson, of Policy&Practice, shared his views on what the ‘new normal’ might be in a leader article for the Northern Echo,  published on 29th April.

One day, this awful pandemic will be over. Or at least the crisis will have passed. It is possible to imagine a time when the situation will be under control. There will be far fewer new cases and widespread testing and contact tracing will be used to control infection. Better treatments will have been developed and – we hope – there’ll be a safe and effective vaccine to support an exit strategy.

We certainly aren’t there yet. But now, as we see at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, thoughts can turn to what the future holds, after Covid-19. Will we be returning to normal, to “business as usual”? Or will things be very different? A sign on the A67 at Barnard Castle The next few months will be difficult. Recovery will be slow. Restrictions will be eased, but then may need to be imposed again if there’s an increase in infections and hospitals are under renewed pressure. Social distancing is going to have to continue for a long time. People will be fearful. Of course, much depends on when (and if) a vaccine becomes widely available. And in all this there’s the international dimension – gradual recovery in the UK will be overshadowed by desperate suffering in the world’s poor countries.

One thing we do know. The economy will be in deep recession. UK government spending has had to increase substantially to support businesses and households hit by the lockdown. Government borrowing is rising fast as tax revenues plummet. The backdrop is a global slump, at least as bad as the Great Depression of the 1920s, and a lot more sudden. Unemployment will rise and household incomes drop. Some economists think the UK economy could bounce back quite quickly, but that feels like wishful thinking. Many businesses will have gone bust. UK companies exporting products and services will be affected by weak demand and global oversupply, their difficulties quite possibly compounded by post-Brexit problems.

Worried domestic consumers are going to be reluctant to spend, adding to recessionary pressures. But this has to be a time for hope, not despair. This trauma has certainly made us all think and it could prove to be a pivotal moment when we choose a different path. We could learn some important lessons from this. Crises focus the mind on what really matters. Everyone is well aware of the vital importance of key workers who are keeping things going during the lockdown. There’s a renewed appreciation of the NHS and of people working in care homes. There’s recognition of the immense contribution of staff from BAME communities and from overseas. Shop-workers, delivery drivers, and those working for the utilities are seen to be essential.

There is also a new awareness of the role and responsibilities of the state. We look to the government to act – and we see how important it is that the state is competent and ready to intervene to support the society and economy. The importance of international co-operation is also clearly revealed – a virus doesn’t recognise borders. And of course we really are all in this together. Within local communities there has been an upsurge of mutual aid, volunteering and neighbourliness. There’s a palpable intergenerational solidarity. Every day The Northern Echo has uplifting stories of people helping each other. The selfishness that’s been a strong element in our culture since the 1980s is unacceptable in such a crisis.

I hope that we will learn lessons from this experience and not just try to put it behind us and get back to “normal”. This pandemic has shown how fragile our lives are. It could be taken as a wake-up call, reminding us of all the issues we’d prefer not to think about. We were dimly aware that a virus like this could threaten us, but did nothing about it. Our government, like others, was unprepared and has struggled to catch up. There are other major threats on the horizon. Climate change is an emergency, but the response to it is clearly inadequate. There are serious problems with global food production, especially livestock production – which could generate viruses far more lethal than Covid -19 as well as promoting antibiotic resistance.

Our way of life, based on endless economic growth, is environmentally unsustainable. The hope, then, is that we do everything we can to address these issues and avoid another terrible and destructive crisis like this one. We can draw on a renewed understanding of what matters, how problems need to be tackled and how we can all work together to build sustainability and resilience. Here in the North-East we can draw on traditions of solidarity and community. But it’s a big challenge. After this crisis, things will be different – and maybe they need to be.

The article can be downloaded from the Northern Echo Website, at this address: