After the catastrophe of the past eight months, a new political consensus seems to be emerging. The government has to get a tighter grip of the country and the crisis we are facing. Taking back control now means that Boris Johnson must change his management style. Instead of remaining an aloof chairman of his government, he must become its hands-on chief executive.
Ministers need to discover misplaced competence – from the reopening of schools to securing a Brexit deal (or preparing for no deal), and from reigniting a beleaguered economy to supporting the tens of thousands of people who will lose their jobs when the furlough scheme ends. And Covid-19 will have to be kept in check through a judicious mix of personal hygiene measures, physical distancing, mask-wearing, testing, quarantine and targeted short-term lockdowns.
Science cannot guide the government in formulating this strategy. A plan for Britain’s future must be guided instead by our values and the lessons learned from the human consequences of this pandemic. It’s time for Johnson’s government to stop saying it is simply “following the science”. By this, I don’t mean that ministers should ignore the advice of scientists as they manage the continuing presence of coronavirus in our communities, but that we don’t elect scientists to lead our nation.
We elect politicians to offer and deliver a vision for our country and a practical plan for our collective future. As summer fades, it’s becoming clear that our government has no vision and no plan for the future of the nation it was elected to protect and strengthen.
The writer Elif Shafak, in her recently published essay How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, recalls seeing signs in public parks during the pandemic asking: “When all this is over, how do you want the world to be different?” She points out that we are suffering from a widespread disillusionment about our bewildering predicament, and describes how people are feeling anxious and angry. She argues that alienation and exclusion are breeding mistrust, that communication between people and politicians is broken, and that despite the crisis we face we are nowhere near being able to answer a question about how we want the world to be.
To solve this crisis, we must begin by hearing the stories and listening to the experiences of those who have borne the brunt of Covid-19, especially the families who have suffered grievous losses and those who fell ill on the frontlines of the response. Illness and death have been concentrated among the elderly, those living with chronic disease, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and those who have been working in frontline public services, from health and social care to transport, food production and distribution.
The closure of schools has placed a particular burden on children and young people. And a shadow pandemic has harmed women and children, who have suffered rising levels of violence and domestic abuse at home.
Working conditions must be improved, and frontline workers must receive a wage that respects and recognises the critical role they have played in protecting our communities from collapse. It was these frontline workers who did not have the luxury of staying at home. Thousands of women and men, working on zero-hours contracts or in dangerous factory conditions without sick pay, had no choice but to work in environments that put them at the highest risk of contracting infection.
We have spent decades underinvesting in education, leaving generations of children to struggle, with little hope and dwindling prospects. And the time for integrating adult and children’s social care within the NHS is long past.
This pandemic has dehumanised us all. The effects of Covid-19 have been described in terms of mortality statistics, rates of infection, epidemiological models and league tables. The biographies of those who lost their lives to this virus have been largely forgotten. But they can be recovered and brought into the political foreground by fashioning a new vision for our nation that puts their lives and sacrifices at its centre.
There will of course be vigorous, even rancorous, political debates about policies to advance the welfare and wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities. But those debates should at least be forged in the service of a coherent, determined and optimistic plan for national rejuvenation. Covid-19 is not our destiny. It’s time to look beyond this appalling, cruel pandemic and towards a more optimistic future.
• Richard Horton is a doctor and edits the Lancet