We need a post-covid Marshall Plan (continued, part 2)

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 1 November 2020
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So here we are again, and it seems not much has really changed since my first post in June 2020. Two strategies are being pursued or championed for how we deal with Covid-19 and its impact on us as a country. The first is to keep locking down partially or fully periodically until we find a vaccine and roll it out. The second is the opposite, to shield the vulnerable and try to go ahead as normal without restrictions with or without herd immunity as an explicit goal, so to safeguard the economy as well as non-covid patient (and general citizen mental) health.

Both are built on the same flawed assumption – that Covid is a once in a century pandemic event and when we have eventually overcome it we can go back to some kind of normal. Though built on the same assumption, they differ in reflecting different beliefs, each using statistics and data to help backup their worldviews. The former rests on a core belief that the NHS must be safeguarded at all costs (to avoid having to explicitly make life or death decisions though these are implicitly being made already during peaks through rationing of care, diagnosis, treatment and aftercare); other core beliefs held by the pro-lockdown faction include education being an utmost priority (it must continue in person as much as possible), and that no politician must been seen to take the risky option if they want to avoid being blamed for unnecessary covid deaths.

The second strategy argues that the economy must ultimately take a priority especially given the cost in terms of mental and other health issues from lack of access to non covid care, isolation, and unemployment etc. It also has a strong belief in the need to safeguard individual liberty and personal responsibility, and in greater transparency so that people and Parliament can be trusted to be part of decision making.

Laudable as each strategy may be, both are essentially backwards looking, built on an assumption that we are not in an era in which pandemics, political disruption, technology shifts, climate change, and bioterrorism may be increasingly common. They are reminiscent of two factions arguing about how to win trench warfare in 1914, whether by ordering troops to rush up and forward into a hail of fire, or to shoot random mortars from relative safety and hope that artillery may eventually overcome the enemy’s defences. Both lead to casualties and stalemate.

What is needed is a complete paradigm shift, which in the case above was the move to tank rather than trench warfare. Today the equivalent of such a shift in the fight against covid and its equivalents (what you might broadly call asymmetric attacks on our country by man or nature), is to build back with resilience permanently. The huge benefit of this approach is to enable everyone in the country, not just our leaders, to move ahead proactively, to take part in the war effort, rather than just to cower helplessly in the trenches waiting for orders, nor to be told to head straight into the enemy’s firing range.

To assume after covid we can go back to the status quo, ignoring how volatile a world we have entered into is like saying Brexit has solved the issue of geographical fragmentation in the age of the internet and social media (look at Scotland) or that getting rid of Trump will tackle the anger people feel about the state of their lives and incomes in places left behind by globalisation and automation. I do not want to also remind fellow citizens how low cost DNA editing machines are. It is naive to think we will be able to go back to normal.

So what do we need to do instead. As I argued in the summer, we need to build for resilience – we need to kind of “build back greener plus plus”. Start by creating a people’s resilience plan, and involve every industry, locality, and citizen in thinking about how we adapt to our modern day Dunkirks, so we can win this war over the long term (over years if not months). We can run rapid design competitions for the creation of new buildings and how to adapt older ones to make them covid secure (with for example glass screens with gloves in them in hairdressers, copper handles everywhere, adapted anti viral HVAC systems), and fund the growth and installation of solutions. Those remedies that are most effective should be scaled up with ARPA support.

We should use furlough to spark innovation and action targeting industries and sectors worst affected so they can operate online and offline more immune from future lockdowns and infections and other asymmetric threats. Particular focus needs to be on blue collar and outdoor work and how this can be turned into remote work more using automation and robots and drones during and after lockdowns so workers can be shielded or distanced even as they go about a factory or construction site.

And finally we need every sector to go online, become more blended digitally and physically, and decentralise. No more huge expensive machines in hospitals but devices that are smaller to fit into mobile vans or even in the home, operated remotely as much as possible. Education that can be delivered from afar using consumer devices or those provided or subsidised by the state and communities, with physical centres in town centres for periodic training (pop in or residential) together in which those visiting can be tested healthwise beforehand. Convert much of our no longer needed commercial offices into campuses for coliving and coworking for new workers who need on site apprenticeship. Rethink our transport strategy to be more renewables based, vehicle-friendly, and 24/7 or overnight (especially for automated logistics transportation to free up the roads during the day).

Every solution generated and rolled out needs to ideally have a ‘peacetime’ use or benefit so that it can be sustainable (like lakes that can be flooded but which serve as a store of water and energy and leisure amenity between floods). And each solution needs to reflect the values we cherish in Britain mentioned above (albeit broadened and adapted) as much as possible: good health, quality education, popular, fostering economic growth and jobs, encouraging of freedom and responsibility, fair and transparent.

In the new post covid world coming the places and peoples that adapt massively and in an agile way will thrive or at least suffer less of a hit than others. Those countries that have taken action and operated in an agile manner have endured fewer losses in terms of lives and livelihoods, whichever kind of regime is in charge in them.

Britain has historically been a place that has been able to adapt decisively, even if like Manchester United at their best, we like to do so in extra time. Whether like Nelson’s more nimble navy versus the Spanish Armada, or embodied in Churchill’s pioneering approach to the development of the tank warfare, or even in the many stories today of our SMEs pivoting brilliantly in this crisis – Britain is at its best when we are quick to tack, and willing to empower those who can operate decisively in a crisis – returning to more open forms of governance when the floods have receded. Let us not let covid or any other 21st Century threat divide us and make us look backward. Let’s instead embrace the rough seas ahead, and learn again to sail resiliently and brilliantly, even if more humbly, into the many tumultuous waves and stormy winds ahead.