Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.
Readers of my blog and ConHome will know that I have been a big advocate for using the crisis that is upon us to build a more resilient Britain – given that there will be many twists and turns both with the virus, and the many other shocks ahead as the climactic, geopolitical, and online environment convulses in the years ahead.
As a party, we will need to adapt to a world beyond politics as usual; as a newly sovereign nation again, we will need to use our new freedoms to pivot, and as a world we will need to become more resilient, and learn that the last nations standing will be the winners.
So what can we do to get ready, and how could the Prime Minister and the Government facilitate this shift from dealing with the immediate emergency, helping get the country out and back out the other side, ready for the next asymetric shock ahead of us? How can we, having had our Dunkirk and being now, as it were, in the midst of the health equivalent of the Battle of Britain, get ready for the rest of the war and get back on the front foot?
First, we need to get the messaging right. It should be based on studies with prisoners of war that show those that survived best were given neither false hope, nor a message of doom, but realistic expectations. What we will face will take time, indeed years, to overcome – but overcome it we eventually will.
Saying the pandemic will be over by next Christmas or the summer is setting ourselves up for a fall. All it would take would be a new harder still to treat variant, or some non-health shock such as a war or unrest, to knock us off course. Better to let people know that we need to adapt to the new reality, and start the journey to learning to live with the virus, even once vaccinated.
Second, we need to reform the NHS. At present, we have a National Covid Service, but regular healthcare, as we have known it, is not really functioning. We need to create a new layer of home-based and mobile van unit-based healthcare on demand, shrink the larger scanners and machines that we keep in hospitals to eventually even become the size of a smartphone, and enable consultation, tests, and even treatment to happen either remotely, or away from hospitals, so that we can get waiting lists down.
We need to further empower our heroic front line workers and patients to self-manage as much as possible away from the bottlenecks we have seen that occur all too often in the NHS machine. And we need a Nurse First recruitment programme, to develop the agile on the ground leaders of our future decentralised healthcare ecosystem – one that can help reduce the need for people to have to go to hospital, and go beyond the bureaucracy to find resources from private, civic, and other channels to help prevent and treat illnesses proactively, holistically, and innovatively.
Oh, and we should break up the replacement for Public Health England, and create more move-on accommodation and key healthcare worker housing near hospitals or on hospital grounds – increasing capacity now before the next winter peak comes.
Finally, we need to trust people more, and stop looking to politicians, ministers, and even government to always have the solutions. There is a dangerous trend during this emergency to hand over draconian powers to those in charge, which is in one sense understandable – we are in effect at war right now – but we have not got effective mechanisms in place for the rest of us to suggest, test, and scale up solutions that can pick up the slack where government cannot presently help.
How can we make online learning more effective, so that state school pupils and families have connectivity and equipment and can create truly compelling online experiences for students, rather than trying to do what has been done face to face online, which doesn’t always work (like running a TV show like a radio disc jockey)?
How can we enable more government services to operate remotely and yet securely. (Word on the street is that it is still impossible to get a new national insurance number from DWP)?
How can we enable Parliament to meet virtually not just through Zoom, but in more interactive ways that more adequately recreate the peer to peer connectivity that we used to have when meeting physically?
If the Government admitted that there are areas in which it needs help, and created with business and civil society more environments with those of us on the front line to incubate solutions, we might be able to get ahead of the curve more – especially in matters that need addressing six, 12 and 18 months ahead, beyond the day to day short-term news cycle and immediate health emergency.
We have been able to move so fast to come up with the vaccine, harnessing collective efforts beyond government. We can do it in these many other areas as well.
We need to build back stronger, literally so we can be more resilient to future shocks. We need to stop thinking normal will ever truly return – at least the one we knew in 2019. We are in a different operating environment now. With more agile institutions, more far-sighted planning, and a greater involvement of non-government and private actors, we can get through this, just as we have got through previous crises, whether during world wars or terrorist attacks.
To my fellow Conservatives and to the Government: harness the wisdom that is out there, and let your colleagues in and beyond Parliament help you, rather being tempted to think we are here to hinder you. Gather suggestions and ideas, and encourage challenge, like John F Kennedy, Churchill and others before them. And together we will come out of the other side ready for anything.