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You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Boris Johnson ought to know that iconic line well enough; after all, it comes from Jaws, and in pre-pandemic times he always used to praise the pig-headed mayor in that movie for keeping shark-infested beaches open come what may. Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned, I suppose. But thanks arguably in part to Johnson’s own failure to shut down quickly enough last year, his government now faces a monumental post-Covid challenge. To tackle the very long tail of this pandemic, Britain will need a bigger boat – or rather, a bigger state – for years to come.
New research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that children who have lost up to six months of learning during lockdowns may be paying for it in lower earnings until they retire. Over a lifetime, it estimates, lower skills could translate into a £350bn hit to the economy if nothing is done to help them catch up, with some children obviously likely to lose far more than others.
Since Britain has never experienced anything quite like this before, figures like this are best treated as informed guesswork. But if they’re anywhere near right, it will take more than a few hours of tutoring to help children catch up. We should be considering a radical expansion of state education for years to come, involving structural changes to create more teaching time; perhaps longer days, shorter holidays, or (as the Social Mobility Commission has suggested) even allowing some children to repeat a school year. Recovery might feel less like getting back to normal, and more like inventing new ways of doing things from scratch, much as schools did in the early days of the pandemic.
But it’s far from clear where the energy or staff numbers for another great leap forward is going to come from when teachers are already so burnt out by the stresses of the last year that almost half of heads surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers said they’d considered leaving the profession early once the pandemic is over. While teacher recruitment rose in lockdown, as it often does in a recession, it takes years to train a new teacher and far longer to replace the experience lost when a veteran one quits.
Clearing the NHS waiting lists built up while hospitals were consumed by Covid cases, and dealing with serious illnesses that will have gone undiagnosed during a pandemic when people were reluctant or unable to go to the GP, will demand a similarly monumental effort. Yet staff are already on their knees after a hellish year on the wards, according to Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers (which represents NHS trusts). Some may need sick leave to recover. Others are likely to retire early or leave the profession, with a Royal College of Nursing survey finding that a third of nurses are considering quitting in the next year. Doctors and nurses have in some cases come out of retirement to help with vaccination, but have little incentive to stay once that’s done.
Wherever you look in public services, you find people who have gone the extra mile in an emergency, but backlogs of work piling up as a result. When the immediate crisis is over, Britain will need some kind of national Covid recovery service addressing all the problems – educational, medical, social and economic – unavoidably created by putting normal life on hold for so long. Such a programme could even create public sector jobs for the millions likely either to lose their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic, or to graduate into a bleak labour market. But it won’t be cheap, or easy. It may feel more like rebuilding a country after a national disaster, a hurricane or an earthquake, than recovering from a recession.
Reports that next month’s budget will lay the groundwork for a decade of relatively high public spending, with the Treasury planning for a five- to 10-year “post-pandemic” phase of living with the virus and its consequences, suggest the government isn’t wholly blind to the problems it faces. But relying on a Conservative administration to manage two whole parliaments’ worth of going against all its tax-cutting, low-spending instincts feels like a hell of a long shot, to put it mildly.
What’s sorely lacking, meanwhile, is the kind of goodwill needed to bring exhausted public servants on board with such a national effort. Pay freezes across the public sector (with the exception of NHS staff and the very low paid) hardly encourage one more heave. The government’s aggressive approach to teaching unions throughout this crisis has badly soured relations and while the new-look Downing Street operation is clearly on a charm offensive, years of petty political hostilities will not be forgotten overnight. To rescue all those at risk of drowning in this storm, we’ll need not just a bigger boat, but a rather wiser skipper.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK schoolchildren desperately need a government that will help make up for lost time | Public services policy