England & Wales, Global, Scotland Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Covid-19: What next for the new normal?

How is it that we will begin to emerge from weeks of lockdown? There is no tried and tested method but trust and transparency in how decisions are made and acted upon are key to their success, writes LGIU’s Head of Briefings, Janet Sillett.

“You can’t stop the economy forever. So we have to start to think about, does everyone stay out of work? Should young people go back to work sooner? Can we test for those who had the virus, resolved, and are now immune and can they start to go back to work?” (Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State)

These questions are driving the next critical questions in the Covid-19 crisis. What is the exit strategy? How will we know when it’s safe to implement it? If this first wave of outbreak eventually dissipates what’s the plan if the virus returns with a vengeance in a few months? How can we imagine and reopen our ‘new normal’ societies?

Researching for the LGIU briefing on exit strategies it became clear that the most difficult and contentious issue for a government is when and how to relax the lockdown. The UK government won’t even discuss details yet publicly. Maybe because there was no consensus among ministers or perhaps because they were waiting for the Prime Minister to be back in charge. He now is back (I’m writing this on 27 April) and his message is that it’s too early to start relaxing the lockdown, but the government will be letting the UK know very soon what the strategy will be.

We know that it won’t be a matter of lockdown ending in a week or two weeks or any weeks time. There will be a staggered release of measures. There is no body of evidence, no model, no scientific formula that can confidently predict what will happen. Ultimately the decisions about relaxing lockdowns are political, though based on the science.

Confidence and trust are key. The public need to have confidence in what the government is telling them. The public’s confidence in the UK government’s ability to handle the coronavirus crisis has fallen sharply in the past fortnight, with less than half of voters now having faith in decisions made by ministers, according to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer. The decrease in trust seems to be related to the issues around testing. While people are increasingly critical of the handling of individual policy areas such as providing PPE, however, a majority still say they approve of the way the crisis is being handled, but the proportion who approve is declining.

Trust is a common thread through many of the issues relating to exit strategies – whether people, for example, have the confidence to return to schools or businesses after restrictions are relaxed. Mixed messages from the government don’t help to create confidence.

And for local government, the issue is whether central government trusts in it to be in the forefront of easing restrictions and preparing for recovery. The UK government has had to rely on local government to deliver the lockdown and to work with local communities and businesses to mitigate its worst effects. That will be as necessary as ever in the next phase.

How relaxation will happen in different sectors or places isn’t obvious either. There are some certainties – social distancing will remain and older people and those with underlying conditions will remain sheltered. An exit strategy is a work in progress – it will need to adapt and respond to the real world. It is possible that there will be some regional basis for relaxing measures – though unlikely at this stage. But the Welsh and Scottish governments have been clear that they may act differently to the UK government (we will be publishing briefing on the Scottish government’s exit strategy tomorrow – 28th April). There could be changes to social distancing rules, such as small groups being able to mix together – though again this seems unlikely to happen soon. This Guardian article picks up some of the ideas around about what could happen.

“We will be assessing physical distancing options for their contribution to minimising overall harm to our health, economy and broader society. We will also assess options against broader considerations including how well any measures can be communicated and understood, how likely they are to be complied with, whether their impact on human rights is proportionate to the current level of risk, and their impact on different equality groups – as we know that both the virus and the physical distancing measures affect different groups in society in different ways. Within these considerations, we will also assess the merits of tailoring options to, for example, specific geographies and sectors, or parts of the rural economy, or those able to work outdoors – but only if that is consistent with the aim of minimising overall harm and can be implemented effectively.” (The Scottish government exit strategy framework for decision making.)

Relaxing restrictions geographically or demographically could be problematic – having a looser lockdown, for example, on one side of the border than the other between Scotland and England could be hard to police. If people are to stay isolated much longer than everyone else on the basis of age there could be a lot of resistance. Again trust is a key factor. Could this make life even more difficult for local authorities and the police?

What is clear, and is reinforced daily by the UK and Scottish governments, is that relaxation of the lockdown is in no way a return to normal. Even when restaurants, for example, are able to open again (and they are probably going to be low down the list) some are saying social distancing rules will make then unviable. Local authorities will need to think through how to ensure social distancing works in town centres and shopping malls when there is an easing of restrictions. Some of this has been already happening in the lockdown – the Irish Examiner looked at growing pressure on local authorities to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists to help enable social distancing.

Local government has had to be swift and adaptable since the lockdown started. There’s no reason to think this will not still be the case when it begins to be relaxed. The pressures on day-to-day work won’t be eased by the lockdown being eased – a lot of it will still be intact and new challenges emerging. On top of which there is growing anxiety about council budgets after the pandemic is over. As well as dealing with the immediate situation every council will need to be considering the longer term impact of Covid-19 on their communities and businesses and how best to mitigate its worst effects on the local economy and the most disadvantaged residents.

The least local authorities can expect from central government is greater clarity and transparency. The Prime Minister today said the decisions about easing the lockdown will be transparent and inclusive and that is to be welcomed. Leaders, such as Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, have been stressing how important it is to tell the public the truth and to treat people as adults.

Uncertainty is inevitable right now – but local government needs to know on what basis decisions about the near future are being taken and to be involved in those that significantly affect the sector. We need to have some idea of the phasing of relaxations, how social distancing needs to be operated in our communities and businesses, and how any easing measures will be monitored. More immediately public health and environmental health staff need to be told how they are to be used in contact tracing and how it will be paid for. And if after the lockdown is relaxed there are signs of infections going up again what will happen next?

In 1913, commenting on the need for greater transparency, the American lawyer Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant”. He was referring to banking but it is equally apt for government. And despite President Trump’s latest thoughts, it is especially appropriate right now during this crisis.

4 thoughts on “Covid-19: What next for the new normal?

  1. Insightful article. Public confidence and trust in local government will be even more fragile than ever now. It will therefore be imperative for decision makers in local authorities to prioritise its connectedness and relationships with their communities, how they engage and listen to them, as well as meaningfully involving them it their lockdown exit plans. This need to be sustained over a period of time, rather than piecemeal. Community engagement built on equal partnership/collaboration and trust will serve local authorities and communities well in in the restoration of the local economy and rebuilding lives for local people, particularly the most disadvantaged . This will require some investment in time and resources, which will reap rewards in the long-term. Central government will in turn have to actively listen to local government, and sustain its recent funding of covid-19 related activities in the long-term and on the journey into the ‘new normal’

  2. Ade

    I completely agree that it is essential that councils engage their communities and businesses in their plans – we have been publishing briefings on community engagement and communications for example. This is clearly not a short term issue and recovering from the pandemic will be massively challenging. And yes it needs resources – but that will be down to the government – local authorities are hugely stretched financially – more funding is needed now than even the additional money the government has provided so far and then there needs to be fundamental reform of local government finance. Where I would disagree is re current trust in local government – I think it has probably increased during the crisis. Of course that is only a subjective opinion as I haven’t seen any surveys about this. This may be tested when the lockdown starts to ease though. And it is crucial that councils try as much as they possibly can to be open to scrutiny and democratic accountability – however hard that is currently.

    1. Thanks for your response, Jane. What I meant about trust being fragile is more in terms of the uncertainty that people may have and feel about the future ‘new normal’ and what it will look like, rather than any mistrust. Added to the fact that communities seem to have self-organised, either online or more with connected networks e.g. faith-based groups, neighbours helping each other and the like, mean this is a challenge for local, and central government for that matter, to step up commitment in multi-agency initiatives to build alliance for the restoration of place and community post-covid-19.

      1. Ade
        I missed this so apologies. I completely agree – and that it is not necessarily about trust but about anxiety – about change and about the virus itself. The latest furore over the lockdown rules won’t have helped though re trust – at least in the short term.

        Re involving and working with community based organisations I do think you are right this will be a challenge- as it always is to some extent, but the response locally to the crisis will have altered the context.

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