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RUTH SUNDERLAND: Coronavirus could be the catalyst to a far fairer and better-functioning economy


RUTH SUNDERLAND: Coronavirus could be the catalyst to a far fairer and better-functioning economy

Right now, with the virus death toll mounting and millions of us fearful for our jobs and businesses, it is very hard to see past the immediate horror. 

But look beyond it we must. How this country tackles the formidable task of rebuilding our lives and our shattered economy will determine the fate of a generation. 

The damage to the economy is already frightening. Record low unemployment has been replaced by the spectre of snaking dole queues on the scale of the 1930s. 

Empty streets: How this country tackles the formidable task of rebuilding our lives and our shattered economy will determine the fate of a generation

Empty streets: How this country tackles the formidable task of rebuilding our lives and our shattered economy will determine the fate of a generation

But this malign microbe could be the catalyst to a far fairer and better-functioning economy. 

I have no medical expertise and I don’t pretend to know whether the trade-off at the moment, between the lives saved by lockdown and the harm inflicted on the economy, is the right balance or not. 

One observation, though. We, along with the rest of the world, were unprepared for the ferocity and speed of the pandemic. It would be unforgivable to be similarly caught unawares for a second wave. 

As and when we have tamed Covid-19, however, the last thing any of us should want is a return to business as usual. 

The virus should be the trigger for wholesale change. Once and for all, there must be a reckoning with the morally bankrupt moguls who put profits before the safety of their staff. 

We must also finish the job of reforming the banks. They have come a long way since the financial crisis of a decade ago, but they have still displayed some of their old, ugly behaviour towards small and medium-sized firms. 

Bank bosses need to grasp that they, and the lending businesses they run, are there to serve society, not themselves. Capitalism is about the allocation of funding to its most productive use. At the moment, that means straining every sinew to keep viable companies afloat.

The business stars of Covid-19 have not been bankers but our unsung manufacturing companies. I have spoken to firms that have shifted production with great dexterity to help the NHS, moving from lingerie to surgical masks, from bespoke shirts to surgical scrubs, from oxygen for submarines to supplies for seriously ill patients. 

Their problem has been finding out how to get the help they want to give to where it is needed. The interface between the NHS and the private sector needs to improve. 

The virus should also prompt more thought about infrastructure priorities.

Rather than HS2, we should be ramping up investment even more in broadband and prioritising the security of power supply. 

After this is over, the Government should start a huge savings drive. The lockdown exposed just how few people have a buffer. 

Why not launch National Reconstruction Bonds, paying a decent return, so people can improve their financial security and help repair the economy? Covid-19 can be a leveller. It has struck FTSE 100 chief executives and the heir to the throne. It can democratise work places. 

In the collective effort, colleagues that would never have met are connecting, albeit not in person. 

And the myth of the star boss is crumbling as CEOs and chairmen I speak to are confessing, sheepishly, that they realise how much they relied on support teams now they are working from home. 

Warnings about a pandemic from Bill Gates and others were ignored. 

Perhaps now we will be more inclined to act on warnings about climate change, ageing populations and debt mountains. 

No way should the economy go back to normal. We all deserve far better than that. 

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