By Ron Ridderbeekx, Senior Counsel

In the British political culture of polarised opinion and binary debate, it has been argued by some that, only months after the thumping Conservative election victory, Labour’s economic agenda has been vindicated because of the government’s unprecedented economic intervention in the face of the Coronavirus.  

The incredible crisis that has engulfed the world is pulling every person out of their comfort zone, particularly those that make decisions on behalf of countries and their residents. The Prime Minister has shown his discomfort at having to restrict freedom and there is no doubt that the Chancellor is deeply uncomfortable at the need for the State to support the economy to the extent he has announced. But in times like these, we have to lean into the discomfort we feel and take decisions that we would never have contemplated in a ‘business as usual’ situation.

Searching for situations comparable in concept if not in scale, I am reminded of a time when the company I worked for, on the eve of an office move, was faced with a fire in the new building. The old office had been dismantled and had to be reoccupied over a weekend, with all the challenges this presented. The obvious goal was to ensure 100% business continuity.

Disaster recovery, whether from an office fire or a global health crisis, requires choices to be made one would not normally wish to. In a crisis, sub-optimal or counter-intuitive solutions are acceptable if they contribute to the overall goal of the operation, which is to retain as much continuity as possible. In the case of the office fire, there was no-one who thought that the move wouldn’t eventually go ahead or that those who liked working in the old building were right all along. The company’s workplace was subordinate to the business continuity goal and everyone understood that.

There is no doubt that the government’s economic interventions are there only to deal with the direct economic consequences of the overriding priority to preserve life and to protect the NHS from overheating so that it can save lives. They should not be taken as a signal that the Conservative government has suddenly had an epiphany that socialism is a superior economic model after all. Its instinct, backed by plenty of evidence, will always be that private enterprise and investment is the most effective and quickest path to prosperity. 

At the same time, it will recognise that there will be bumps in the recovery road and the question is quite how interventionist the Conservative government will allow itself to be to help smooth out those bumps. On Brexit, the government’s messaging was that the country can handle a bumpy transition. In other words, the country voted for it and we cannot rely on government to mitigate specific downsides. Its job is to pursue the opportunities and, as per its manifesto and budget in early March, it is prepared to spend big on public services and on ‘levelling up’ the country.

But no-one voted for the coronavirus and public opinion will back continued intervention that goes beyond the government’s original instincts. Aside from the question of how to make the NHS more resilient and how to better reward the brave soldiers of the NHS, there will also be the question of how to make the economy and the population more resilient to withstand any future pandemic. The need to improve air quality means accelerating the transition to sustainable energy and transport systems. The need for business continuity means accelerating the technology transformation. And the need for individual resilience will no doubt drive at least a temptation to intervene in people’s lifestyles on a larger scale than before.  

What is certain is that there will be many pressure groups in these areas that will feel bolstered by the pandemic to step up their campaigns once the immediate threat has receded.

Photo credit: David Mark from Pixabay.