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25 March 2020

Coronavirus and the changing perceptions of public service

Official recognition that many private businesses, such as supermarkets, provide public services is long overdue.

By Julian Baggini

Before the coronavirus pandemic, few of us considered supermarkets, airlines or pubs to be anything other than private businesses looking to make a profit. But in the maelstrom of the Covid-19 crisis, this has changed. Sectors of the economy once thought to be purely commercial are now being talked about in the language of public service.

When the Exeter-based commercial airline FlyBe collapsed on 4 March, it was clear that some parts of the country had lost a vital link to major British cities. And as supermarket delivery services become overwhelmed with orders, there are now concerns about getting essential supplies to people who are self-isolating; it has even been suggested that the army should intervene to help.

The government acknowledged the food sector’s role as a public service when it included “those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery” in its guidance for maintaining provisional education issued on 19 March.

Official recognition that many private businesses provide public services is long overdue. What constituted a public service once seemed obvious: they were essential services necessary for a functioning society, and were state-owned and state-run for the benefit of all citizens.

But the shattering of the postwar consensus after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 complicated things. Services such as the post office, utilities and telecommunications were privatised, and were no longer identified by who owned them but by their function.

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Putting public services into private hands has also created ambiguities about what the concepts of public and private even mean. Banking, for example, which has long been a privately run industry, is an essential public service – without a bank account it is difficult to secure a home or even a job.

The third sector economy, which is made up of non-governmental and non-profit organisations, and includes charities and voluntary groups, is another area where the division between private ownership and public service is not as clear as it seems. The third sector plays a major part in the public life of the nation but, for example, almost all of the hospices in the UK are run by independent charities. 

The coronavirus crisis has magnified these ambiguities and blurred the division between the public and private sectors. The critical function of supermarkets is especially instructive in this regard. 

It now seems obvious that nothing is more important than the supply of food and basic provisions to the population. Yet we have blithely left this to private enterprise, as though feeding the nation were no more a public service than selling cars.

Under normal circumstances, food is efficiently supplied by the market. Indeed, before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, its breadlines were compared unfavourably with the cornucopias in Western supermarkets, which led to the conclusion that foodstuffs and convenience goods could only be supplied by the market, not the state.

But in these new and surreal times, the coronavirus epidemic will not only produce a cognitive revolution in how people view the economy, and the division between public and private. It will also highlight the extent to which populations rely on private business to supply what might be classified as vital goods and services. 

This transformation should prompt a number of responses.

First, governments need to think more carefully about the role that private enterprise plays in delivering public services. With respect to farming, no government of recent decades has been so crass as to consider agriculture just another sector of the economy. However, at the same time too little attention has been paid to the role agriculture plays in providing food security and protecting the environment.

The Covid-19 crisis has also brought into sharp focus the dangers of relying too heavily on imported food. Since leaving the European Union in January 2020 – an event that already seems part of a different age – Britain faces a choice between raising food safety standards or opening its borders to cheap imports, potentially putting domestic farmers out of business. The coronavirus pandemic could be the ultimate spur for the government to reinforce its commitment to food security.

Another response to changing views of public and private service provision is to make a case for greater regulation. There is already robust oversight of privatised utilities such as telecom firms and rail companies, which operate within tight regulatory regimes. 

But for those businesses not usually considered public service providers, an ideological taboo against government intervention and oversight has led to weak and ineffective regulation. Supermarkets supply the population with the most basic need: food. Yet regulation is so poor that millions of consumers buy unhealthy food presented in non-recyclable packaging that is detrimental both to people’s health and the environment. The pandemic may finally erode the 40-year economic bias against regulation. 

Finally, public perceptions must change. When we interact with public services we are aware that we do so as citizens. When we enter into transactions with private firms, however, we commonly see ourselves as consumers. As the New Citizenship Project has argued, this alters the way we evaluate our ability to shape the behaviour of private corporations. As citizens, we can protest against their bad practices, praise their good ones and encourage governments to step in (or out) as necessary. We routinely do this when using what are ordinarily thought of as public services and should do the same with any private firm that has a public service element.

Covid-19 has shaken society to its core. If it has also shaken our conception of what society is and the role private business plays in it, then something good may yet come of it.

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor