COVID-19: After the crisis it can’t be business as usual

Jonathan Edwards MP writes for The Sunday Times about about how the Coronavirus crisis has shown who the real heroes are in our society.

Hands up, who at the beginning of the year was worried about Coronavirus? In early January, my Plaid Cymru colleagues and I in the west had one of our regular meetings with the local Health Board. I was tempted to ask the question “should we be worried about the emergence of the virus in China and what plans were being put in place to prepare to a global pandemic?”

However, the topic seemed outlandish when the meeting had largely concentrated on the ongoing problems of staff recruitment and retention, access to NHS dentistry, waiting times and service reconfiguration.

We haven’t even got to the end of March, and the world has been engulfed in an unprecedented health crisis coupled with an emerging economic catastrophe. At the beginning of this month, Coronavirus was not the most pressing issue on the Westminster menu. I vividly remember sitting in a session of PMQs only a few weeks ago and not a single question was asked about the virus.

The rapid escalation of the outbreak reminds me of the Lenin quote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. During my parliamentary career we have faced the aftermath of the great financial crash, two referendums, four General Elections, two National Assembly elections, riots, and the Brexit shambles to name a few events. However, nothing comes close to the challenge we face now in response to this global pandemic.

We are facing an event that may last many months at best, perhaps years. This crisis will change the way we live and work profoundly – and we are about to find out who the real key workers are in our society.

I can safely assure readers that it’s not rockstar bankers and premiership footballers that will be the heroes – but those previously insultingly deemed ‘low skill workers’ in the health and care sector, and other vital public servants who will be in the front line fighting the virus. A new society will, I hope, emerge that properly remunerates and values those everyday heroes we are all relying upon to get us through this unprecedented time.

We can do without speculating bankers, celebrities and footballers – care workers are going to be indispensable.

A pretty big mirror is being held up in front of the disgraceful individual and geographic wealth inequalities that exist within the British State. It is clearer now more than ever that they must be tackled once and for all.

With an economic collapse the most effective way of ensuring that people have money to pay for essentials and keep a semblance of demand is to introduce a basic payment for all, as advocated by Plaid Cymru. This would be far preferable piecemeal interventions that risks missing groups of people. It should be funded by a one of wealth tax ceasing the financial assets of everyone over a certain level – for instance £10m (as proposed by the Fabian Society in 2016).

The richest thousand people in the UK have a combined wealth well over £600bn. More than enough to make sure the other 60m can have food on their tables via a basic income.

A re-run of 2008 is not acceptable. Of course, banks and businesses should be kept afloat, but the people must be the priority for any bailout. This time the super-rich will have to pay their fair share. Aiming the axe at the least well off in society for the cost of the crisis and its aftermath is not acceptable.

An economic system based on the worship of free markets will be of no use as witnessed already by the extraordinary upscaling of government intervention announced by the Chancellor.

The State is the only actor big enough to lead the effort against the disease, and out of this government intervention will be seen as a force for good as opposed to some malign influence as promoted since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution.

The cat is out of the bag – we have seen the size and speed at which the state can intervene for the good of society. On the other side of this crisis, the question will be if you could do it then, why not now?

Out of the crisis we will have to rebuild international organisations and find ways of working together to meet the global challenges we face, such as rebuilding a more equitable global economy, preparing for future pandemics and global warming.

The UK constitution will also face a major overhaul if the British State is to survive. Welcomingly, the British Government have agreed to a four-nation approach to dealing with the crisis. This structure of joint decision-making should indicate a way forward for the UK where all four constituent parts are treated as equal partners. A return to Westminster central control will make the existence of the British State unsustainable.

The British Government are fond of their slogans. In my time we have had ‘we're all in this together’ ‘long-term economic plan’, and now the ‘whatever it takes’ bingo catchphrase. We need more than meaningless slogans in such a serious situation, but it is time that the British Government delivers on empty words.

The age of populism is dead and from the ashes of the Coronavirus crisis, I hope that a better society will emerge.


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