Former UK Health Minister Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell says the priority for public policy in the months and years ahead must be to learn and apply the lessons of the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has had us reaching for our aphorisms. One of my favourites is the Lenin quote which states that “there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”
There are many ways in which that thought is apposite to our recent experience, but one of the most obvious is the impact on our lives of digital technology.
Before the pandemic there were many discussions on this subject. People spoke of webinars and virtual meetings replacing the need for face-to-face gatherings and there was also extensive discussion of the capacity of ‘Big Data’ to reshape public services as well as changing the relationship of the citizen to the state and improve the availability and quality of information available to all of us.
There wasn’t really resistance to these ideas. Questions, certainly, and sometimes scepticism, but seldom overt opposition. Digital enthusiasts argued a persuasive case – but not quite persuasive enough.
Life changed, and in broadly the way the enthusiasts said it would. But the pace of change was slow, sometimes glacial, and the old ways proved surprisingly resilient. Demand for travel and conferences kept growing and people kept meeting.
Then the pandemic struck. Suddenly travel was impossible, and we all faced an urgent question: do we stop exchanging ideas and experience with each other, or do we find other ways of doing it?
Zoom and Teams provided the answer; human exchange continued, and we found new ways to learn from each other.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
As the new technologies take root, we are beginning to understand the scale of the change that they seem likely to promote.
Businesses and their staff who have discovered the ability to work remotely are asking why they would revert to the old methods. Rather than spending hours each week commuting to the office many prefer to arrange to meet when necessary, but otherwise work from home.
This has huge implications for the infrastructure of large cities, which we are only starting to address. Cajoling people to make unnecessary journeys to unnecessary meetings seems unlikely to be the best policy response.
But this is only the beginning. If city centres need to devote less space to workplaces and mass transit, what will be the secondary consequences of these primary changes? Land and buildings that become redundant in their current use will be available for alternative uses; how will planning system respond to these changes?
Nor is it only the cityscape which will be changed by digital disruption. It will impact directly on the way we lead out lives within those cities.
To take just one example, there has been talk for decades about how digital technology creates the opportunity to re-shape healthcare.
Improved communications linked to faster and more accurate diagnosis create challenges that will allow us to offer services which are more convenient, more personalised and more effective.
But realising these benefits raises several challenges. Sometimes delay is unavoidable as technology doesn’t always deliver the benefits that its supporters seek. But too often, delay is the result of systemic lethargy in the face of challenges, which require new ways of working and new ways of thinking.
These are familiar themes among champions of new technology of all sorts, but the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has been salutary.
Sometimes this experience has demonstrated what is possible. Moves towards accessible healthcare enabled by remote consultations and full deployment remote diagnosis have made possible changes that would previously have taken months, if not longer, to agree. In the UK, the NHS has shown a capacity to respond to urgent need, which its critics would previously have dismissed as fanciful.
Less positively, however, the pandemic has also shone an unforgiving spotlight on some familiar failings. Resource pressures and short-term time horizons, as well as failures of vision, have left professional staff without the support that technology could have provided, and it is the people who rely on their care who have paid the price.
As we look forward it is easy to agree that we must ‘build back better.’ The priority for public policy in the months and years ahead must be to learn and apply the lessons of the pandemic – both about what worked well and what didn’t.
We have seen what can be achieved when we respond to events with urgency. But we have also seen how much remains to done – and how much scope there is for learning from the experience of others.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of all from the pandemic is that no country has all the answers. All countries faced the pandemic, and the implications of both the pandemic and a digitally empowered response will face every country.
The technology allows us to share experience and learn from each other. If we fail to do so it is not the technology that is at fault.