So You Want To Go Back To Normal? This Is What Needs To Happen

The freedom offered by a vaccine means little if the government immediately decides it’s time we tighten our belts, writes Ash Sarkar.
"Big problems require big solutions."
"Big problems require big solutions."
NurPhoto via Getty Images

With a vaccine on the horizon, one feels like a dog hearing the rattle of kibble in the food bowl. In a particularly unsubtle bit of wish fulfilment supplied by my unconscious, my nightly dreams are filled with all the banal stuff which the pandemic rendered verboten.

Sniffing perfumes I have no intention of buying, unmasked, in a shop. Hugging my grandmother, or inventing new ways to irritate my clinically vulnerable sister. Staying in on a Friday night because I’m lazy, and not because every nightclub in the land is either shut or rebranded as a substantial meal dispensary.

While some on the left demand “no going back to normal”, the slogan is fatally counter-intuitive. Most people don’t have wage stagnation in mind when they’re talking about a return to pre-pandemic life. What we’re thinking about are the simple joys of socialising without having to worry about whether you’re endangering the people around you.

It’s true that, far from being an indiscriminate leveller, coronavirus has laid bare the inequalities which have been marrow-deep in our society for decades.

While millions of households saw their incomes decimated, with a 47% jump in food bank use, billionaire wealth increased during the pandemic.

Disabled people, low-wage workers, and those from BAME communities have been overrepresented in covid fatalities. Children from impoverished households have experienced greater disruption to their education than those from middle class ones.

The skewing of England’s economic activity towards London has resulted in Westminster’s political abandonment of the North and Midlands, while lockdown has accelerated the decline of British high streets.

Hot on the heels of the biggest pay squeeze since the Napoleonic Wars, Rishi Sunak is poised to implement a public sector pay freeze as an unemployment crisis looms.

But there are lessons to be learned from this pandemic.

Firstly, it has rendered visible the topsy-turvy nature of the economy, the workers most integral to the functioning of our society being the ones who couldn’t stay safely ensconced at home.

Shelf stackers, bus drivers, cleaners, porters, nurses, carers, security guards and waste collectors: as a general rule of thumb, the social usefulness of your job turns out to be inversely proportional to how much you get paid for it.

“Without pressure from both in and outside Westminster, there’s good reason to fear that it’ll be the poorest who’ll be hardest hit once more.”

Furthermore, facing a choice of staying home when sick or being able to pay the bills, all too many people have been forced into work when they should have been self-isolating over the course of this pandemic.

Secondly, the unprecedented pace at which a vaccine has been developed shows just what can be achieved when governments unite and chuck money at the world’s most pressing issues. The same things which make a return to normal so appealing – being able to live less anxiously, more socially, and with a greater sense of security – are precisely why we need a new, fair economic settlement.

Without pressure from both in and outside Westminster, there’s good reason to fear that it’ll be the poorest who’ll be hardest hit once more.

As one civil servant remarked in 1963, the dominant view at the Treasury tends to be that “Spending money, like eating people, is always wrong.”

Despite Boris Johnson’s earlier promise ruling out a return to austerity, it would be wise to question whether instinctively hawkish Sunak shares the same commitment in face of nearly £400bn of borrowing.

But the impact of public spending cuts, kamikaze privatisation and wage stagnation on the country’s finances has been nothing short of catastrophic.

Far from balancing the books and returning the economy to good health, 10 years of Conservative austerity policies shrank the economy by £100 billion, leaving the average household £300 worse off a month. And as reported by a senior UN health envoy, economic inequality and precarity have had a devastating impact on the UK’s mental health. We cannot live happy or free lives without economic security.

In order to aid recovery, the government needs to prioritise increasing the spending power of those on low and middle incomes. The touted public sector pay freeze would not only be a grave insult to all those key workers who risked their lives to keep the country going over the pandemic, it would be economically illiterate.

The combination of a decade’s wage stagnation and the soaring cost of living has already butchered the financial resilience of too many households. Boosting the nation’s spending power after many people saw reductions to their income over the pandemic by increasing public sector pay and investing properly in the social safety net injects money into the economy, rather than stripping demand out of it.

The cost of borrowing has dropped by over £20bn for the government. Sunak would be wise to take advantage of historically low interest rates, deferring deficit reduction in favour of ambitious spending on job creation.

Big problems require big solutions. If the government is serious about the health of our economy even after most of us get the vaccine, that will mean a little more inspiration from FDR than from George Osborne.

State-backed public works programmes, which create jobs in infrastructure intended for the public benefit, are an idea whose time has come around again.

Johnson ought to nick a bit more from Labour’s 2019 manifesto than the snappy titles: his Green Industrial Revolution has just a fraction of the budget allocated to the opposition’s decarbonisation plans. An investment of 1.9% of GDP per year could yield a net benefit of £800 billion within a decade, and the creation of 850,000 new jobs (as opposed to Johnson’s 250,000). Borrowing-to-invest is cheaper than it’s ever been – the government has the power to bring in a “new normal” of a green economy, with jobs for all.

The freedom offered by a vaccine means little if the government immediately decides it’s time we tighten our belts, queue up at the food bank, dip into non-existent personal savings, and balance the Treasury’s books on the backs of the poor.

The pandemic stole from us our ability to socialise, to enjoy ourselves, to spend time with the people who matter the most to us. That’s why it’s up to all of us to make sure that the government does not impose an economic cure that’s worse than the disease.

Ash Sarkar is a Contributing Editor at Novara Media, and lectures at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.