Social distancing blog: Day “lost track”

Although we are now out of the 14-day isolation period, like most people my family and I are now social distancing for the foreseeable.

To be real about it, it is challenging staying in the home. We have started to fall into a rhythm on home schooling. Last night I was talking with a friend who is a teacher. I asked them how on earth teachers can cope with a class of 30 kids, working at different levels and prone to distraction and chat? I only had to manage a mixed ability class of three, over whom I have ultimate parental authority. And together with my wife we have a parent child ratio of 2:3.

April 2, 2020 is the fortieth anniversary of the St. Paul’s uprising. I began the day by watching Lawrence Hoo’s “Uprising 2020”. I recommend it. It’s part of our story.

This crisis is testing everything about our way of life. And it’s exposing the ideology that has severely undervalued the importance of government and the public sector in general, and local government and society in particular. It is the public sector we are now depending on for the basics.

It feels a bit as though national government is now trying to reap where it has not sown after ten years of austerity. We have had decade of disinvestment in the very health, education and governance services we are now depending on to lead and serve us through this crisis. The family of policies called Austerity was dressed up as economic competence. But coronavirus exposes them as a dogmatic determination not to understand the importance of the public sector as fundamental to the resilience of our social order. Disinvesting is actually like gambling or going without insurance. It’s fine, until you hit the crisis.

Some people made much of the Prime Minister conceding this week that there is such a thing as society. What we also need is a similar Damascene moment recognising the importance of our public sector – local government and public health alongside the NHS, youth services, our police – and putting real money into them. When all else falls away, we find many of these workers are our nation’s backbone.

This investment of cash needs to be accompanied by a commitment to devolution of power and leadership. National government is important. It must provide a framework. But micro-managing the country from Whitehall is an old model of leadership in a modern world. Understanding the diversity of our local populations, and developing solutions that are culturally intelligent cannot be done satisfactorily from the centre. National government must understand – and invest accordingly – in the critical role of local government as leaders and shapers of place, not merely delivery arms of national government.

It’s imperfect but the image I use to describe the relationship is that between someone drowning (national government) and their would-be rescuer (the national network of local governments). The first thing national government must do is recognise there is a rescuer and then cooperate with the rescuer. Stop panicking. Stop trying to control a situation they cannot control. That doesn’t mean submit. It means listen and cooperate. The danger is if they don’t, and they start thrashing about, they foil the rescue and risk taking the rescuer down with them.

This crisis is not welcome. But among the things we take from it must be a reappraisal, and new plan, for the place of the public sector in the post-Covid-19 world.

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