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Hope dwindles as Britain head to systems collapse

 Hope dwindles as Britain head to systems collapse In the past three years, the twin furies of Covid and the Ukraine war have shaken our soc...

 Hope dwindles as Britain head to systems collapse

In the past three years, the twin furies of Covid and the Ukraine war have shaken our society’s very foundations. Dreams of The End of History after the end of the Cold War have been dashed. Politicians can no longer pretend that shocks can be absorbed simply by “going shopping” – as George W Bush put it, when he advised people to go on as normal in the wake of 9/11 – or by submitting to the elemental forces of change – as Tony Blair ordained. Instead we are plunged into a world of dark-age geopolitics, super-wicked problems, black swan events and “unknown unknowns”.

Far from being jolted into responding to these changes, however, the system is seizing up. The NHS potentially faces a graver crisis now than it did in the depths of Covid, with A&E bedlam, bed shortages, and extraordinary ambulance delays. Top scientific advisers, meanwhile, warn that, having bafflingly dismantled its preparedness infrastructure, the UK is no more ready for a pandemic today than it was in 2020. It is down to the pure luck of somewhat warmer weather this winter that we have so far staved off the threat of blackouts. Amid the chaos, the Government has delayed the publication of its promised national resilience strategy, 18 months after launching an official review.

Covid and the war in Ukraine were supposed to trigger a paradigm shift in our society. The zeal for “efficiency” in public services (embodied by the NHS running close to full capacity even in good times) was meant to give way to a renewed focus on resilience, perhaps informed by insights from ecology, psychology and engineering about how systems can both survive and thrive in an unstable world. Blockages in supply chains were meant to result in more political interest in food security and home-grown production in strategic industries.

We’re already paying the cost for our previously deficient approach, after all. Taxes are rising to a post-war high in large part because the bill for the Covid lockdowns and the energy price guarantee have come due. The former was justified on the basis that the NHS was not sufficiently robust to the shock of a novel respiratory virus. The latter was the inevitable result of an energy sector left vulnerable to international price swings.

Yet, a radical change in thinking has not materialised. The Tories have no overarching vision of a future in which people can live freely and with confidence in a world of risks. Nor does Labour – which is more at ease waging ideological warfare on private schools and teasing the Right with plans to gut the House of Lords.

As it stands in No 10, there appears to be no grand plan for the NHS beyond the usual firefighting: tax increases are being used to boost staff wages eroded by inflation, rather than to boost capacity. Nor is the UK taking seriously the need to produce more strategically vital stuff on demand. The country’s leading Covid test manufacturers have warned that they would not respond to another emergency call to arms. They are taking the Government to court as it offshores contracts to China.

The Tories’ refusal to bring their net zero plans into line with reality, meanwhile, is becoming a national security threat in itself. Months after publishing a long-term energy strategy – still bizarrely committed to unreliable renewables – it has re-banned fracking and disincentivised new North Sea oil investment by slapping huge windfall taxes on the sector. Although the Government has finally thrown its weight behind nuclear, this is not on a big enough scale to prevent capacity dropping in the medium term.

Why has the response been so anemic? Tory exhaustion is surely playing its part. Perhaps there is a sense in government that resilience is a second-order problem that can be dealt with only after all these near-term winter crises are tackled. Irresponsible short-termism is also embedded into the system institutionally, with the Treasury’s Green Book for appraising policies penalising proposals that yield future rather than immediate benefits, for example.

Comments from the former head of the vaccine taskforce, Dame Kate Bingham – that she is “beginning to think this is deliberate government policy, just not to invest or not to support the [science] sector” in the wake of Covid – are also revealing. After all, refashioning chunks of the Civil Service to deal not just with everyday administration but concrete avoidable future emergencies is highly subversive. It shifts the bureaucratic machine’s focus from processes and protocol, which are opaque, cumbersome, and rarely questioned by outsiders, to outcomes, which are visible, quantifiable and open to scrutiny. The scientific expertise required in areas like pandemic planning is an open threat to the incumbent mandarins of the PPE generalist school.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the simple fact that resilience thinking is downright tricky. It means tackling knotty false economies. We are especially vulnerable to lockdowns, for example, because we have stingily capped the number of training places for new doctors and nurses. Furlough was so expensive because UK households have higher levels of debt than other European countries.

One of the reasons the state is under pressure to spend eye-watering sums on social and child care is because so many young adults move away from their depressed home towns, and thus their parents, to find work. Because it is expensive, resilience thinking also demands politicians confront politically thorny issues, such as the sustainability of the health service’s financial model, our irrational risk aversion to new technologies, and how the scourge of selfish middle-class nimbyism is blocking vital infrastructure.

One might then also wonder whether elite inertia is partly ideological. Perhaps there is some intellectual resistance to a shift from the “simple complexity” of managerialism whereby the world can be predicted, controlled and reduced to utopian models to one of “general complexity” of resilience thinking - which accepts that the world cannot be top-down predicted and controlled.

But the difficult questions can no longer be avoided: the current complacency is downright insane. Covid and Putin’s invasion were not bolts from the blue. Globalisation has left us permanently more vulnerable to pandemics; Putin’s war has likely ruptured global energy supplies for a generation. As the West weans itself off Russia, we can surely expect other oil and gas states to manipulate resource flows to throw their diplomatic weight around themselves.

And yet our leaders seem to have decided that it is far easier to carry on plodding through the chaos, until something finally gives way. If what we need is a total revolution, it may only come from the ashes of total systems collapse.


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