Today marks a genuine turning point in the struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, as the first vaccine roll out begins in UK and Scottish hospitals. This is major and welcome news after a year that has transformed politics, economics and everyday life across the world.
Hopes are high for the various vaccines following successful clinical trials. After the false dawns of the summer, leaders may be understandably cagey about announcing “mission accomplished”. But this does appear to signal that life could resume at something approaching normality following months of extraordinary gloom.
However, if we can now imagine a world with the virus under control, the question returns to managing the economic and social fallout. The coronavirus started as a public health issue, but its economic after-effects will continue to transform everyday lives with major political consequences.
To start with, the costs to public finances have been astronomical. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates the UK’s borrowing for this financial year at £394 billion, the highest figure outside wartime, compared to an expected £55 billion.
Circumstances have forced governments to rip up the economic ideologies of the past generation. We have seen a return of “big government” and an apparent consensus around investment even among hardened fiscal Conservatives. However, all of this was a matter of needs must, a product of the emergency and a temporary mood of “national unity”. A return to normality could cut two ways, as the question flips to, who pays for all this?
The signs are there already. The coronavirus will reinforce a decade of stagnation in public sector real wages. Many workers on Britain’s pandemic frontline are being subjected to yet another pay freeze.
There may be even deeper problems in the private economy. Despite huge cash injections, high street chains and small local businesses have gone bust and will continue to go bust. This is partly the impact of various lockdowns, but also reflects how the virus has reinforced deeper trends to online shopping. Low paid, data-driven delivery services are booming. These changes could well be permanent, just as Zoom has already transformed conferencing and the traditional business trip.
Life after lockdown has reinforced many underlying injustices. An estimate by Swiss bank UBS has shown that billionaire wealth increased 27.5% at the height of the crisis, driven, in part, by growing public reliance on big tech. Frontline private sector workers, by contrast, from cleaners to shop workers, suffer the brunt of exploitation and economic risk.
Finally, consider public services. Even beyond this year’s exams fiasco, there is growing evidence that the pandemic has reinforced poverty-related inequality in Scottish schools (and Scotland is hardly alone here). This raises questions about what happens to existing government targets about combatting ingrained social injustice. There can be no avoiding hard political questions of priorities.
This does not detract from the relief most people will feel at the prospect of a return to normality. But, as the cliché has it, this will be a “new normal”. And old questions from the era of austerity may creep back in, as the seemingly generous mood gives way to “realism”. Either way, the question will increasingly turn to how to distribute the costs of the second extraordinary economic, political and social crisis of the past two decades. Who pays, and who benefits?