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In this crisis, the government is spending too much time on things it can’t control

We can't predict how Covid-19 will change society, and there's a point at which the government shouldn't try. 

By Stephen Bush

The Covid-19 pandemic has two possible endings. In one, an effective treatment or a vaccine renders the disease non-lethal. In the other, society adapts to the presence of a new and deadly disease.

Or it might be both; the wait for a treatment or a vaccine will be long, and in the meantime society will have to adapt to a new way of living.

[see also: The race for a Covid-19 vaccine]

This will happen in all sorts of ways. People who are unhappily single will take a greater level of risk in order to meet someone, whether for a brief connection or for something longer-lasting. People in their 80s will decide to take more health risks to go out and enjoy life rather than spending years indoors.

Some leisure activities will become drastically more expensive. Sports bars that once had attendances of 400 for big matches will change their prices to make the same amount of money for a Covid-safe number of guests and attendances.

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It will also happen in all sorts of strange ways. Some people will take a greater risk to eat out and enjoy a fine meal. Others will take greater risks to travel to new places, or to watch their football team play.

Some changes will probably be permanent – a greater level of homeworking is likely, and I think it is also highly likely that cinemas will be drastically and permanently altered by the coronavirus recession.

[see also: Boris Johnson is asking businesses to take a big risk. Few will do so]

I’ve written a lot about offices partly because they are the cleanest and easiest example, and partly because both bosses and workers have been generous with their time and insight about what they want and expect to happen next.

I suspect that in the future, if there is no long-term health solution to the novel coronavirus, we will have more expensive leisure activities. People working from home more won’t go out for a sandwich every day, but when they do, they will be getting a better and more expensive sandwich; there will be fewer cinemas, but they will be in the centre of cities, with higher ticket prices; public transport will be more oriented towards leisure and nightlife (instead of the Tube closing for essential maintenance in late at night, it might close in the afternoon).

But I don’t know, and it’s very difficult to predict because the future depends on the aggregate preferences of so many people.

The big mistake the government is making in its strategy for unlocking is attempting to intervene in that process – trying to cajole businesses back to the old way of working, and to encourage people to visit shops or restaurants when they don’t want to. 

What it should do instead is allow that process to play out, and focus on saving lives – both through the direct battle against the virus, and through making sure the safety net is sufficiently generous and widely accessible. It is not the price of pizza that is preventing people spend the country out of this crisis, but the underlying fear of disease and destitution.