Support 100 years of independent journalism.

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.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

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.