Covid: As things start to return to normal, do politicians really think they can 'move on' from the pandemic? – Ian Swanson

After nearly 18 months of restricted living because of Covid, things are beginning to get back to normal.

Tuesday, 17th August 2021, 12:30 pm

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The virus has not gone away, of course, but while some measures remain, most legal requirements have been lifted. The Festival and Fringe are under way, albeit on a reduced scale; schools go back this week; and the party conference season will soon be upon us, with Labour and Tory delegates at least meeting in person rather than tuning in from their laptops at home.

But as the party faithful look forward to the return of physical gatherings, will politics also return to normal?

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When he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson never expected to be presiding over a pandemic.

In addition to ensuring Brexit, he had a wider agenda which included the vaguely defined policy of "levelling up" and controversial reforms to the civil service, justice and other areas of government. But instead he was forced to declare lockdown just three months after securing a majority at a general election and most of his attention had to be devoted to Covid.

The pandemic has not stopped him pressing ahead with some of his plans, like banning protests for being "too noisy" and the introduction of harsh new immigration restrictions. But he will be impatient to put Covid behind him and get on with other policies.

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Pupils return to school this week after more than a year of education disrupted by Covid (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Meanwhile Labour's Sir Keir Starmer – elected leader soon after lockdown began – has had to operate under Covid restrictions ever since taking office. He has been criticised for failing to make clear what Labour stands for, so he too will be pleased at an opportunity to focus on other issues.

Nicola Sturgeon has performed better during the pandemic than either of the main UK party leaders, but leaked motions for the SNP’s conference – which along with the Lib Dems’ will still be held online – show independence is likely to be one of the key topics.

Covid has dominated everything for the past year and a half and everyone would be delighted to see the back of it, but there is no escaping the fact the pandemic, as well as causing tens of thousands of deaths, has also had a big impact on people’s lives in lost jobs, ruined businesses, plummeting income, massive debts and uncertainty about the future.

UK unemployment is already 1.1 million higher than when lockdown began in March 2020 and is forecast to increase substantially when furlough finally ends.

The economy may “bounce back” in statistical terms, but many shops, restaurants and other businesses which were a familiar part of towns and cities before the pandemic will not reopen and many others will still be struggling because of the debt burden they took on just to survive.

Individuals too found themselves in debt or turning to food banks because redundancy, furlough or a reduction in hours made it impossible to make ends meet.

Labour has warned of a tidal wave of evictions after the lifting of the ban imposed during the pandemic, worsening the housing crisis.

And of course health and education both need major investment to recover.

However much politicians might want to “move on” to other priorities, the aftermath of Covid will be a crucial part of the political agenda for years to come.

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