If there's anything to be gained from the Covid-19 pandemic, notwithstanding the horrific toll it has taken, and continues to take, across the globe, it is the opportunity for reflection. This applies on the micro level, for each industry, workplace, family and individual, but also on the macro; politically, nationally and internationally.
Whilst a common refrain across various walks of life is the understandable desire to get back to normal, The varying levels of pause implement to arrest the spread of the virus allows an opportunity to reflect on the sort of challenges we need to grapple with and the changes we can make, if we but seize this game-changing moment to fundamentally change the game.
We owe it to ourselves, to each other and most importantly to all of those we have lost to this historical disaster to truly make history. We owe it to their memory not just to meet the future but to mould it. Not just to await tomorrow but to shape it.
Our duty to those we could not save is to make the world they left behind a better one, a more compassionate one, a changed one. To go back to the way things were, to even try, is to dishonour their memory.
We cannot, we must not, simply put Covid behind us and those we lost along with it. Instead, we must change fast, change smart and change forever.
The following, then, are a few off the cuff suggestions for a post-Covid world. This is by no means exhaustive and by no means precise, but this is the way we as a population must begin to think, if we are to force our legislators into taking action that goes beyond patching things up as simply and conventionally as they can get away with. They will not radically change anything under their own power; we must lead them there, drag them there, no doubt kicking and screaming.
The Paradigm needs to shift, and we must be the ones to shift it.
Hygiene Habits Need To Be Maintained
This ought to be fairly self-explanatory, but despite the increased emphasis on general hand hygiene and hygienic practices in general, it warrants underlining that hand washing should be for life, not just for Covid.
I know many had great fun pointing out that it shouldn't take a global pandemic to make people wash their hands properly, but sometimes people need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.
And as anyone who has answered the call of nature in a gents toilet, be it public, public house, restaurant, gig or sporting occasion can attest, apathy was indeed prevailing before Covid-19 hit.
Health campaigns on Television, radio, online and other advertising outlets should become a permanent fixture and efforts should be made to encourage, cajole and even socially embarrass those who let their personal hygiene habits lapse. Drink driving wasn't always viewed in the popular conscience as a badge of shame but successful drives to change attitudes succeeded. Even so, they continue to be used quite rightly even now, when figures are considerably lower than they once were.
There's no reason not to take forward a banner of conscientious behaviour from here on out. This means making sure all lavatories, regardless of their surroundings or context, being rigorously checked for sufficient warm water, soap and proper facilities across the board. Hygiene fines, naming and shaming, encouraging good practice; this is an achievable aim and would have enormous benefits going forward for the entirety of society.
And if we can cut out spitting as well, that'd be grand. Manky.
The Internet Ought To Be A Utility
Even after lockdown has been lifted, incrementally or fully, the expectation is that working from home will be encouraged for those who can.
So is it not time Governments around the world bit the bullet and accepted that along with water, gas, electricity and phonelines, the internet is a public utility? Consider the amount of people that need it to continue to work, contribute to the economy and keep the economy functioning even on a reduced capacity.
Consider the position anyone without comprehensive Broadband or Internet service finds themselves in now, and will find themselves in once having it is a factor in one's prospect of gaining employment going forward. I've never been asked if I have a home broadband connection in an interview before now, but one imagines it might make it's way into the process and the online questionnaires going forward for any would be job seeker.
Are we really content with with the prospect of cutting employers off from a resource of potential employees? Are we really to be content with employers having the power to dictate how one runs their home life? Nevermind big government, the true threat to liberty is big business. plus ça change.
Look beyond employment, to the bigger picture. Online learning? Online banking? Connecting to culture through the reading and buying of books, the watching of plays and television and films. Online banking. Zoom calls, video chats, email, social media, cloud based applications; we rely on these to socialise from a distance. When the choice is have reliable internet or be truly isolated from the world, there's really no choice at all.
The role of the state of course has to be to step in and prevent that. The Internet has to be a utility and it has to be run for the public good, a safety net for those unable or unwilling to hand over cash to the conglomerates currently providing the service. We cannot, as a global community, be so exposed to these interests. It is morally wrong, but also strategically short sighted. Where's the social safety net?
How stable are these platforms and how much usage can they withstand before degradation sets in? The answer cannot be to expect people to fork out for even more expensive packages, a strategy that benefits the current private providers and precisely nobody else.
Things have changed. Access to the internet is no longer a privilege; it now must be recognised as a right. In 2015, The House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills report advised the following-
Everyday activities—such as shopping, using a telephone and banking— increasingly require interaction with technology. Digital skills (the skills needed to interact with digital technologies) are now necessary life skills. Individuals and businesses alike will need skills to protect themselves online. It is not acceptable for any group to be excluded from access to digital technologies. We must aspire for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society. All of this will require universal access to the internet to engage with vital public and personal services. That is why we conclude that the Government should define the internet as a utility service, available for all to access and use.
This was published over 5 years ago. Beyond the UK, there are even calls in the US for the development of a Public Digital Infrastructure, as outlined in this outstanding article from Forbes, written by Steve Andriole.
Not a bad idea, that.
Time the Governments of the world, including the Scottish Government, to get real.
Universal Basic Income
If you found yourself employed in the UK as Covid-19 ran riot, you may well have found yourself furloughed. I was, then it turned out I wasn't, because the company didn't need to take the Government money afterall.
Many were, though, and at time of writing many still are.
The Furlough scheme has seen the Government pay 80% of wages up to £2500 and has been widely welcomed as an example of much needed intervention to prevent a tsunami of unemployment and/or a wipeout of more businesses than I can count (admittedly, counting has never been my strength).
Of course, with a Universal Basic Income, furlough might not have been so badly needed.
The idea has pros and cons lists to spare and you'll find informed, passionate arguments for and against it with even the merest of internet searches, but fundamentally it would see a calculated income provided on a universal basis to ensure nobody is ever left without any income to speak of.
In such a scenario, one can see scope for a massive reform, or even jettisoning, of unemployment benefit/jobseekers/Universal Credit/insert latest benefits scheme rebrand here. One can also see employers having to provide proper wages for even the lower paid roles (often heralded these days a key worker roles, funnily enough) in order to make it worthwhile, thus transferring some power to the prospective employee, a badly needed step in a society as unequal as the UK.
Nobody should be unable to live on a full-time wage. A basic level of income that would be enough to live on, in a basic sort of way, transforms work into a means to gaining comfort in one's living, a means to of providing the opportunity to raise oneself up as far as one's talents can take them, rather than seeing potential squandered because multiple jobs need to be worked even to manage to scrape together enough to live on, or because they cannot pursue careers in the areas wherein which their strengths lie due to an inability to ever really discover them, scrambling as they must from one month to another, one week to another, one day to another. We can give people more time to find the most suitable long term job, rather than latching onto the first port in a storm. This ought to increase the long term efficiency of the labour market.
Employers will have to work harder to make themselves an attractive prospect, but this is a shift in dynamic that we can all do with. You could reasonably expect to see a surge in self-employment, new small businesses and a revolution in arts and innovation, given that a UBI affords not only a safety net but also a degree of time that working life has strangled out of the public over the last hundred years or so.
The already wealthy could be incentivised to use this windfall to contribute to charity, but the reality is that those in such positions would barely notice the UBI dividend; it is those on the very bottom rung for whom this would be a lifeline, a life changer, a life saver. So why make it Universal at all? For the same reason we don't force those earning above X amount to partake in Private Healthcare.
Universality also removes the cost and disincentive inherent in means tested benefits. Will some be encouraged to live off benefits? Probably. Is that already the case anyway, even without the UBI? Why yes, yes it is. Otherwise the idea of a benefit cheat, of someone living off the state rather than seeking employment, would be an alien one to us, and certainly never appear on banner headlines in red top newspapers.
This oft relied upon reason not to try it, then, already happens under the current system so rather falls at the first hurdle of scrutiny when one properly thinks it through. Surely we are seeing that people on the whole do value having work to do, do value having a job and tie up some of their sense of self in their role as a worker. We know this to be true and it is on that basis that the avalanche of freeloaders so confidently predicted is s straw man with little to no basis in reality.
The direction of travel very much appears to be more flexibility in working, not less. That has a knock on effect on the current benefits systems in place and a UBI seems more capable of supplying the safety net for the modern worker than the more conventional versions that are quickly being left behind in a world of zero hours, self-employment by proxy and part-time/full-time combos.
conventional means-tested benefits is that it can create a disincentive to work longer hours or move to a higher paying job because the marginal gain in income is relatively low. Under a UBI, any extra income from work is kept as exactly that and not lost through withdrawn benefits as a consequence of progress in the working sphere.
The UBI would also reward the often invisible glue of our communities; parents raising children at home, carers aiding elderly or vulnerable relatives, volunteers aiming to assist those less fortunate and those who often go unnoticed and under appreciated. Knock on effects, then, could include less taxing demand on the health service by conditions caused or exacerbated by poverty, on social care sectors and on local and national administration.
After-all, a UBI could very well be a hell of a lot better value for money than the Department of Work and Pensions.
According to the Citizen's Basic Income Trust, benefits could be distributed according to age, an aggregation that is currently in use for determining minimum wage.
0-24 year olds would receive £56.25 per week, 25-64 year olds would receive £71 per week and those 65 and over would receive £142.70 per week. The citizen’s income would replace all benefits except disability and housing benefit. The total cost for 2012/13 would be £276bn (close to the existing annual welfare budget). It would replace child benefit, income support, JSA, NI and state pensions. They also estimate admin savings of £10bn.
There are many, many kinks that need to be ironed out for any UBI to be viable, but it's time to get the ironing board out, because we really need to get our shirt on.
Businesses Will Want to Enforce Home Working; They Must Be Fought Hard
Remote working is the holy grail for many an employer; goodbye, office rent costs. Cheerio, cleaners and electricity bills and so on and so forth. For employees, too, you can kiss the hated commute goodbye. This is also going to have a positive impact on air quality and the health and environmental benefits that entails.
Of course, the power, heating and internet doesn't pay for itself. Nor does the tea and coffee, sadly. The much heralded Death of Office Working would see the costs handed over wholesale to the worker, employee, whilst the employer pockets even more profit now their outgoings are dramatically reduced.
There has been some talk, including from folk like Sir Martin Sorrell, that said employers will be able to invest the £35m he spends on expensive offices in his employees, instead.
Wull ye, aye? Forgive my reticence to engage in any breath holding competitions.
As we go forward into an increasingly remote working practice, a journey that in truth was well underway already and is being accelerated significantly by this pandemic rather than being birthed by it, we must fight to ensure that employees are given the financial recompense needed to support the increased outgoings they will have when working from home isn't some novel experience for less than a year.
Perhaps rota'd hours can be looked at and the energy bill incurred during those times calculated and either paid by the employer or reflected in the wage of the employee.
This does nothing for the social aspect, though. Yes, not everyone enjoys the social interaction that comes with being ensconced with other human beings, but plenty do. Plenty need it, perhaps more than they themselves realise.
How do we retain that? Is there a place, perhaps, for offices located in population centres of various types that provides space for employees from various businesses to either block book desks or hot desk so that workers are not forking out the cash for all the energy output at home and which also provides human interaction and a reason to get out of one's pyjamas or lounge wear?
One that would require cleaners, thus keeping that sector afloat?
Key Worker Dividend
Key workers, it turns out, are not paid the big bucks. How very surprising. If we aren't introducing a UBI, how about we give these crucial fulcrums of society something more lasting than a weekly round of applause?
How about a boost in wages specifically for those in industries identified as being in the key worker category? You could give them a dividend of another type, of course. Tax relief, a pension top up to reward them in retirement, perhaps.
At the very least, they ought to be getting something tangible, something significant, to reflect how integral they have clearly been. It's nothing short of a scandal how poorly nurses, care workers and teachers are paid anyway, so on a separate note they should be given significant, game changing increases in their wages regardless, but the key worker category is wider than many of us would have thought had we been asked this time last year.
Let's give them a thank-you they deserve.
We Need More Open Public Spaces
Yup. We really, really do. There should be more of them, they should be maintained to a higher standard and treated as more of a priority than they currently are. Also, civic pride should be encouraged, given how beneficial these can be for physical and mental health.
Simple and to the point. Who says I can't be succinct?