Most of 2021 was dedicated to the constant clamour of seeking a return to ‘normality’. As we look into the year ahead however what we really need to accept in 2022 is how to really live with Covid-19.
This includes an acceptance that when it comes to a virus as serious as Covid-19 you cannot separate the parts from the whole. That is, there is a need to end this constant urge to debate the trade-off between the success of our economy, our social life and the public health concerns posed by the virus.
While there is clearly a trade-off between the level of restrictions or inoculation needed to control the virus which allow us to live freely and to avoid economic disruption and social limitations, this trade-off is far from dichotomous.
As we begin 2022 with restrictions which we entered into 2021 in full hope would no longer be needed by now, its now time that we stopped fooling ourselves into thinking that what we achieved through ‘the good months’ (when restrictions were at their fewest and the virus was broadly under control) of 2021 was ‘normality’.
For a start, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough), the Self-employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and a range of business support schemes ran throughout much of 2021. For this reason, the social security system which we enjoyed for most of 2021 was far removed from the ‘normal’. The ending of these supports in the autumn coincided with a new wave of Covid-19 and the start of the winter season which in any year puts near to untenable strain on the NHS.
Until around mid-December governments largely ploughed on without the re-introduction of any further restrictions but it was around this time that the chief medical officer in Northern Ireland started to hint that the start of 2022 would require some reintroduction in order to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed.
At this stage however it remained completely unknown if this would be economically feasible as all income supports had ended. This is made all the more complicated in Northern Ireland whom may want/need to impose restrictions which are not in place throughout the rest of the UK, but as policies such as the furlough scheme or SEISS scheme are ‘reserved’ policy matters with all changes made at Westminster and applied across the UK. Thus, before any public health restrictions can be put into place time is wasted (re) preparing the fiscal policy tools to assist. This risks precious time being wasted as the Omicron variant lurks on.
As we look into 2022 why not do what we promised ourselves way back in the spring of 2020. Let’s have that conversation about what kind of society we want. Prior to the current crisis, the UK operated among the most threadbare of social security systems in Europe.
The actions taken by governments during this pandemic have meant that rather than experiencing an economic crash to rival the great depression of the 1930s, we have the potential to experience a convergence to pre-pandemic output and growth levels in the near future. When we think of the long shadow cast by the financial crisis of 2008, such an outcome seems truly remarkable.
What the pandemic has shown is that when government steps in to provide ultimate economic security, it can prevent the long legacy of economic misery that has followed so many previous economic crises. One of the most significant lessons of this crisis has been that, rather than being a drag on growth or competitiveness, having a proper, well-funded social security net is one of the key parts of the whole. Providing income security in times of economic disruption not only alleviates distress for individuals and families, it is also a key investment in ultimate economic recovery.
The pandemic led to the creation of new systems of support for the unemployed that have shown that the capacity for such a system is possible.
We seem unwilling however to accept that this system needs to be implemented into place indefinitely and that rather than having end dates for supports and reintroduction as accept in 2022 that the virus is not going anywhere and to really live with Covid we can no longer shy away from the conversation of ‘what kind of society do you want?’ and ‘how much are we willing to pay for it?’. π
Dr Lisa Wilson is a senior economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute