Covid demands that we have a new politics embracing care, community, cooperation, coordination, and conviviality

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Just suppose for a moment that we had politicians with the sense to realise that COVID is not over, and that omicron is just one of a number of variants to come, and not in itself the end of this story, as is almost certainly going to prove to be the case. What, in that event, would Covid politics look like? I offer thoughts on this issue and what needs to happen because this is where real political leadership has the greatest opportunity to effect change.

To date, far too many politicians in the UK have implied that:

  • Covid is temporary;
  • We will get back to normal;
  • Normal is a state where we can ignore our obligations to each other, not least with regard to public health;
  • We can take public services for granted, and that those who work for them will always do what is required;
  • Covid costs must be paid for by cutting other public services;
  • Covid is a national, and not an international concern;
  • Markets will provide the answer to Covid, and must be respected;
  • Existing government priorities have not been changed by Covid.

As a result, we have seen rhetoric that:

  • Treats personal rights as paramount;
  • Has prioritised market and economic interests over scientific evidence;
  • Has moved from praising the NHS to suggesting that it, and those working within it, are failing;
  • Has prioritised profit over effective policy measures;
  • Has not demanded that Covid treatments be made available patent-free when many of the vaccines have been developed with state aid;
  • Has abandoned obligations to developing countries;
  • Has talked about Covid as if it is a political battle against a foe that can be beaten, when the proper characterisation is not remotely akin to that.

On the way:

  • Politicians have sought to normalise unacceptable death rates;
  • Harm to children has been treated as if it were acceptable collateral damage of little concern;
  • Whole professions beyond the medical field have been treated with contempt, with teaching being high on this list, but far from being alone;
  • Local authorities have been undermined;
  • Procrastination, corruption, waste and incompetence have been normalised.

It is entirely fair to conclude that these policies have failed. As omicron emerges it is obvious that:

  • The UK is amongst the many countries that have failed to honour their promise to deliver vaccines to the developing states of the world, which may have enormous consequent cost, both there and here;
  • The promise of ‘freedom day’ and of ‘no going back’ was intensely foolish, and are now going to create significant problems in imposing appropriate public health measures;
  • NHS staff are already at their limits and that unless real measures are taken to ease strain the health service of the UK is at risk both in the short and long term as people leave the professions of which they are now a part;
  • The same is true of teaching, where the personal risk of exposure to disease is far too high;
  • We have not taken the required steps to make schools, universities, hospitals and other large places of regular mass gathering safe, including by ensuring adequate ventilation;
  • Rules on social distancing and mass gathering were relaxed too fast;
  • The drive to get people back to work was unwise;
  • Urgent aid packages to deliver vaccines to developing countries are required;
  • Legal steps to end profiteering from this crisis have to be taken;
  • Long term measures to reinforce the civil service, both at central government and local level are required to ensure that capacity to manage this ongoing situation is created.

However, what we require most of all is a message that everything has changed:

  • We have a duty of care to each other;
  • We have an obligation to protect others from harm;
  • In the face of a collective threat we must act collectively, and accept the adjustment to our way of life from doing so;
  • This might require that we change out attitude to government, tax, public service and those who work as public servants – seeing them all as an essential part of the fabric that makes our lives possible, secure and actually – although it is rarely said – as good as they are;
  • In turn this might also require that we reappraise the private / public sector divide and the stark messaging around this issue that we are used to needs to be moderated, and actually on all sides, because the private sector does obviously have a role to play, which some on the left deny, inappropriately;
  • We have a duty to understand how these things all work. Maybe there has never been a time outside war when public education is so needed as now, and not just on health issues, but all the surrounding matters;
  • Care and not gain has to be the driving force in politics now.

In the light of all this we need to reimagine the future of our society. We did this in the early 1940s, because we needed to do so. Keynes rethought funding. Beveridge rethought the role of the state – and we got the welfare state as a result. But those giants cannot provide all the answers now. We live in different times, with different needs, and with different requirements to care, both because of Covid and climate change, plus the very obvious greater integration of the world around us.

This is the time to rethink politics.

It is no longer about the ownership of material goods, or the means of production.

It is no longer about growth.

It is no longer about partisan interest when so very obviously the challenges that we face are universal, and cross boarders too.

This is the moment when the new has to be born. And if it is the words care, community, cooperation, coordination, and conviviality must feature in the list of qualities that the new politics must have.

Is that possible? Survival, I suggest, depends upon it.