The lockdown diaries

1st June 2020

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Peter O'Sullivan

It's been seven weeks (at the time of writing) since prime minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus – seven weeks in which more than 30,000 people have died in the UK, the first European nation to pass that grim landmark. “How on earth did it come to this?“ asked Sir Keir Starmer in his first Prime Minister's Questions as Labour leader.

There will be time to unpick this government's response to the pandemic, but we are still in the eye of the storm. The peak may have passed, but attention now turns to how to ease the lockdown, restart the economy and reopen schools. The spectre of a 'second spike' looms large in the near-term, economic ruin in the medium term. Longer-term, there is the deeper climate crisis.

Most will agree that the prime minister can't throw caution to the wind. Our world will be very different for some time. Safety is vital – but the economy is sick. How can we best resuscitate it?

Two camps are emerging: 'build back better' and 'bulldoze and be damned'. In the first are those promoting alignment between economy and environment. The other suggests businesses need to be rebuilt quickly, regardless of the longer-term costs; that wealth will give us resilience.

Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, suggests the best thing ministers can do is “focus on bulldozing any and every obstacle to growth and job creation. That means spending less time pinpointing which businesses are 'good' and which are 'bad', and more on supporting businesses of every kind,“ he wrote in the Financial Times.

“Two distinct camps are emerging: 'build back better' and 'bulldoze and be damned'“

Airlines and oil companies therefore need a bailout, so the thinking goes; tax-shy Amazon can invest in takeaway platform Deliveroo. If these companies fail, jobs will be lost, and people and the economy will suffer. But so will their rich owners and investors.

Another way to do this would be to recreate companies in a better way – or create new, better companies. Ministers are making decisions quickly, but that doesn't mean interventions cannot come with caveats and clauses relating to carbon (or other environmental, social and corporate governance measures). The details can be fleshed out later, but ministers should be wary of simply flashing the cash and hoping for the best.

There is also evidence to show that building back better can save money. Recent research led by the University of Oxford catalogued over 700 stimulus policies and surveyed 231 experts from 53 countries, and found that green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend, and lead to increased long-term savings than traditional fiscal stimulus. “We can choose to build back better, keeping many of the recent improvements we've seen in cleaner air, returning nature and reduced greenhouse gas emissions,“ said lead author Cameron Hepburn.

It has been wonderful to see air quality improve, emissions fall and nature thrive, but when we 'switch the economy back on', air quality will nosedive, emissions will rise and ecosystems will again struggle.

This is a long game. Lockdown hasn't reset the clock, but it's given us a glimpse of what the world could look like – from cities booming with bikes, to international business conducted via a screen rather than the skies.

Which path will Johnson take? He is arguably a populist leader, with voters getting what they want when they want it. Some 66% of Britons believe climate change is as serious as COVID-19 (Ipsos Mori, April 2020), but they are divided on whether the government should take actions to help the economy that might harm the environment: 46% say yes and 43% no. There is no referendum on how to recover after this crisis, but the decisions Johnson makes will reveal how truly green he is.

David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer.

Image credit: Getty


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