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Mile End Institute

Coronavirus: A Policy Melting Pot by Griffin Shiel

From a cursory glance at the UK Government’s Coronavirus Action Plan, it would be easy to assume that the virus is almost exclusively an issue for the Department of Health and Social Care. It’s safe to say Professor Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer), Dr Jenny Harries (Deputy Chief Medical Officer) and Matt Hancock (Health Secretary) have had more air time than even they could have imagined.

 

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However, behind the hand-washing, the social distancing, the isolating and the NHS-clapping, there lies a litany of policies covering a huge spectrum of policy areas. 2020 was set to be another year of Brexit and not much else but Corona has intervened, creating a policy ‘melting pot’ the like of which we’ve never seen in peacetime.

Government policy is rarely confined to one policy area. No policy exists in a vacuum, they are impacted by the preferences of multiple departments, and what has come before. Compromise and collaboration are the key, but also hard to achieve as politicians aren’t always willing to compromise on their interests – see multiple Brexit withdrawal agreements.

This is precisely what makes the Coronavirus Act, passed at the end of March such an impressive piece of legislative work. The government has been criticised for acting too slowly, not testing enough people, not having enough ventilators and not giving medical professionals high enough wages. All are valid criticisms, but they take away from the fact that the government has managed to formulate a single act that covers the jurisdiction of most, if not all, governmental departments. There are entire subsections on statutory sick pay, courts and tribunals, transportation, national insurance, local authorities, and business tenancies. Provisions have been put in place for the self-employed, tenants and the newly unemployed. The world of top-level sport, typically immune from the goings-on in Westminster, has had to take notice and come to halt, defying every corporate incentive in favour of the greater good.

Departmental hierarchies and political egos have been put to one side to create something all-encompassing – a rare instance in which everyone is, broadly speaking, pushing in the same direction.  The hope is that this a turning point, and that going forward we take this attitude that collaboration and compromise are more important than individual political ambition and making it big in Westminster.  Can we now look forward to a future in which housing policies aren’t just about housing, but about job provision too, and social welfare? Or maybe the next time legislation is passed to try address knife crime in the UK, we actually take a good look at funding for local authorities and community projects instead of half-baked, and offensive, initiatives to put warnings in fried chicken boxes.

It’s too early to call the government’s response to Coronavirus a success, a failure or somewhere in between, but we can hope that it’s a turning point. Just as people are finding the silver linings in the community spirit on display and the reduction in pollution levels, there is a chance that we could be seeing a turning point in how politics is conducted. Perhaps this difficult period could leave a positive legacy of political collaboration and compromise over egotism, ambition and making it big in Westminster. 

Griffin Shiel is a Postgraduate student of International Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London.