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How society can survive Covid-19 Social capital has been left to atrophy over generations — now is the time to replenish it

Homeless shelters are already shutting their doors. Credit: Infantes/AFP via Getty

Homeless shelters are already shutting their doors. Credit: Infantes/AFP via Getty

March 26, 2020   5 mins

A fortnight ago, the Chancellor pledged the NHS “whatever it needs, whatever it costs” for the fight against Covid-19. Then, a week later, the Prime Minister promised to do “whatever it takes” to support businesses through the crisis — announcing measures that will virtually underwrite the entire economy for the next quarter. Now the time has come for similar assurances to be given to the third and arguably most important pillar in the response to this terrifying disease: local communities themselves.

Britain needs a social stimulus to match the economic guarantee. The rationale for the former differs from the latter. In the economy, policymakers have acted to prevent a temporary supply shock from transmuting into a permanent cutback in demand. Levers and political willpower we never knew existed have been deployed at unprecedented scale and dizzying pace to this end.

In society, communities are fast experiencing the equal and opposite problem: a temporary explosion in demand after a long period during which the supply of connection and neighbourliness has been in abeyance. Yet there has been no talk of a package to respond to this demand, and to strengthen fragile and anxious communities.

True, the past week has seen countless stories of altruism — mutual aid groups, supermarket elderly hours, key worker discounts and neighbourly altruism. With every story, it is impossible not to have your faith in basic humanity and the power of community bolstered. But for every small act of kindness, there are countless civic institutions and community groups whose vital work is hanging in the balance just when it is most urgent.

Homeless shelters are bracing themselves for closure when their vulnerable populations inevitably fall victim to infection; one shelter in Glasgow has already shut its doors. Stockpiling has emptied supermarket shelves and foreclosed food banks too, leaving families hungry. Community businesses, which rely on venue-based activities such as shops and cafes for 43% of their income, are particularly vulnerable to the prolonged lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on Monday.

Worryingly, new analysis from the Centre for Social Justice reveals that a quarter of all charities with incomes below £1 million have no reserves at all. Newspaper reports suggest donations to UK charities have almost halved in the last month. Even before public restrictions, four in five charities were warning that Covid-19 meant they would probably be unable to operate normal services. There is a real risk that social distancing may destroy social enterprise.

And this ignores the existing deeper frailties in our social fabric. Londoners baulk at the darkened shops that now adorn our streets, but an empty town centre was a familiar sight in many regional towns and suburbs long before the pandemic hit. It is a depressing truth that many of those places will see their last high street shop close for good during the next few months. Without help, the lifeblood of many Northern towns — the local football, rugby league or cricket teams — will go to the wall, unable even to see out their final season.

We cannot let this happen. We must use this moment to replenish the stock of social capital that had been left to atrophy over generations — precisely because it is this social fabric that will sustain society through the coming months of strain and heartbreak. Besides, the state will be overwhelmed without help from communities.

The Prime Minister and Robert Jenrick have already announced plans to use the military, local government and volunteers to direct food and supplies to 1.5 million vulnerable people quarantined for three months. But the number of over-65s living alone far exceeds this — 3.8 million people, equivalent to 6% of the population or a thousand people for every Intensive Care Unit bed in the NHS. Who will deliver food and supplies for those not covered by the Government’s initiative? This is when our social infrastructure comes in to its own.

The NHS is creaking under the weight of 6,500 infections — a tenth of the number witnessed in Italy — even before widespread testing has begun. The health service will need to fall back on some of Britain’s three million first aiders, 15,000 St John’s Ambulance volunteers, and countless voluntary hospices and trusts located around the country to test and care in the community if it is to defeat the disease.

Similarly, who will care for Britain’s elderly, if not Britain’s seven million informal and family carers, when care homes close and hospitals are filled beyond capacity? How will local government cope, without the rich web of informal social services — from foster parents and crisis cafes to community benefit societies and youth clubs — needed to divert demand, maintain order and sustain morale during what will arguably be the greatest crisis this generation has faced? Even during the next three months of lockdown, these groups can be deployed digitally to help vulnerable groups.

The Government has already taken steps to strengthen these little platoons. The extension of the business interruption loan scheme and salary guarantee to charities and social enterprises will keep existing charities on life support for three months. Baroness Barran, the civil society minister, and Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, are clearly working hard to buttress civil society.

But there is an opportunity to go further, to strengthen and scale existing efforts and help new initiatives prevent the virus laying waste to communities.

This will require funding, but money exists, if the will is there to unlock it. The 380 members of the Association of Charitable Funders (ACF), for example, have £50 billion under management: a 5% pay-down would release £2.5 billion to charities and community groups right now. That is even without the kind of resources the Treasury is deploying to shore up other sectors.

It will require flexibility around staffing, governance or vetting red tape, to ensure help is expedited to those that need it.

Could we not temporarily relax regulations limiting childminders to six children, for example, if doing so releases key workers to tend to the sick? Should we not drastically reduce the time it takes to register a charity from the current 40 day minimum, or slash the waiting time for an enhanced DBS check — needed to work with people in receipt of healthcare — from the current four weeks? Radical tax incentives could also quickly be introduced to encourage more people to donate to good causes during the next three months.

In addition, the Government should not hesitate in safeguarding social institutions in the same way it has rightly underwritten the future of economic assets. The long-term damage from this disease will be considerably more pernicious if local fans do not have match day and regulars do not have their local cafe or pub to come together around when the disease ebbs.

Last week, Rishi Sunak said “We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.” He was right: it is how we act together and the things we do for each other that will define this moment in history.

It took the new Chancellor 10 days to go from a £12 billion Budget to guaranteeing the wages of a tenth of the workforce. He and the Cabinet should work with the same speed and scale on the social response. Onward, the think tank I run, will be working at pace to help them.

We may now be in splendid isolation, but that must not prevent connection. And unless we act fast, the casualties of this pandemic will not just be measured in terms of GDP shed or lives lost, but in a society whose foundations are weaker, its institutions withered, and its resilience to handle future challenges reduced.

Will Tanner is the director of think tank Onward.


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James Chilton
James Chilton
4 years ago

The replenishment of social capital would take a generation and involve a revaluation of values. Not much can be done on an emergency basis – other than individual acts of mercy.