Coronavirus

Will 2021 Be the Year for Public Justice?

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Over a year on from the first reported case of Covid-19, every nation is grappling with their response consequences. The UK has had one of the world’s highest death rates, and we need to know why. The worst public health crisis in a century has eviscerated social structures already weakened from a decade of ‘austerity’.

A torrent of conflicting narratives has shaped public perceptions: a pandemic has never happened at a time when people have had access to so many sources of information. During this crisis, an institution in urgent need of reconfiguration has remained eerily still: government. Not a single secretary of state has resigned, whether that be over charges of bullying (Priti Patel), incompetence (Gavin Williamson) or deceit (Robert Buckland). There must be a public inquiry, posing an era-defining choice about the direction of good governance, that reorientates us with a sense of justice and democratic accountability.

The handling of the pandemic – success varying enormously around the globe – has been a test of governments’ resource and resolve of the people they govern. The scandals defining the British government are not accidental; they are prerequisites for what the neoliberal imagination has made a reality: a leave-it-to-the-market, technology-will-save-us-in-the-end shadow that remains socially distanced from required moral action.

As imagined by their Conservative predecessors, the hollowed-out state relied on outsourced contracts to corporations with no track record of success in delivering PPE and an effective test-and-trace system. We can assume that ‘the economy’ was the patient most in need of primary care. While other nations have more ably suppressed the virus, it seems that the UK government implicitly believes we should learn to live with it. This cannot be a substitute for an actual plan.

It feels as if mechanisms in place to vocalise deep mistrust in governance are opaque and unattainable. A public inquiry should outline reforms that institutionalise greater responsivity to consent, civic protection and participation. Just as after the vote to leave the European Union, there should have been policies directed at deeper democratisation and localisation of political processes.

There will be an urge to scratch the who’s-to-blame itch, a public inquiry that follows the trail of incapable public officials, to an under-funded police force, to an ill-equipped health system, to an ill-prepared government. Though it was considered one of the best-prepared nations for a pandemic, UK strategy was predicated on dealing with a flu-type epidemic, which focussed too narrowly on herd immunity. This produced an ineffective response with grim consequences.

When the Department of Health simulated an Influenza pandemic in 2016, public interest could be assumed to be minimal. However, with over 90,000 Covid-related deaths at the time of writing, the public must know how and why deeply consequential political decisions were made. Any inquiry must have binding objectives that cannot be open to political spin or institutional name-changing (I’m looking at you Public Health England).

2020 seemed to mark a shift in what people desire from their economy and their society, from key workers being celebrated with Thursday night clapping and pot-banging to key government advisors’ vilification. Any aims of a new social settlement, which should include value attributed to care, must have at its core a means of allowing greater access to holding politicians accountable for essential errors. People should not have to wait for U-turns before the right strategies for competent governance are in place.

The citizenry, re-awoken, should have a first-hand role in the creation and deliverance of public policy. The top-down, opposition-lite approach to politics, a feature of the UK system, creates an uneven and even un-consensual dynamic that fosters mistrust in politicians’ ability to do the most basic of things: keep their citizens alive. Some of these aims could be achieved by allowing for independent bodies to dismiss government ministers when wrongdoing has been evidenced; greater regulation of social media spreading disinformation; creating constituent assemblies that can exert localised influence on a national political programme.

It is time for honesty to be returned to the fore of public life. A reciprocal relationship between government and people, respecting where the former’s power stems from, a public programme that leads with fact-based evidence. At no other time in recent history have the needs of society been so common.

Though this is not the only government to be accused of incompetence, corruption and failure. But it represents the state of the body-politic: foreseeably unprepared for twenty-first-century governance challenges. It feels as if the role of government has never been so ill-defined: absent in confronting an education vacuum for the younger generations, while simultaneously unwilling to address the crises facing the elderly and vulnerable. A public inquiry that frames these decisions as mistakes, dressing them as blips in the long, progressive arc of history, would be the real failure.

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