When IT met Covid: The World Changed
We face the worst recession since …
According to the IMF the world faces the worst recession since the Great Depression. The UK Office of Budget Responsibility believes it could be the worst in 300 years. The societal impact may be akin to that of the plague that brought the great age of Athenian Democracy to an end. If so, it will have been caused by the political and economic reaction rather than the death toll. Public Health Officials and Banking Regulators may have had contingency plans but economists did not.
In consequence Governments pressed “stop” (lockdown) button in the belief that giving bridging loans to everyone will enable the wealth-generating, tax-paying private sector to restart after a period of suspended animation. Parts will. Parts will not. The latter will include many start-ups in the gig economy, not just traditional businesses that were already at risk. Some of the latter may instead gain a new lease of life.
It is not possible to predict how long the overall recovery will take but it is beginning to become possible to predict some of the probable winners, as well as some almost certain losers, based on form to date and the likely going. Meanwhile the local, regional and national courses to recovery are likely to be more akin to steeplechases with moving obstacles (alias changing Government and Regulatory policy choices as “scientific” advice and political “acceptability” evolve) than flat races. More-over the winners and losers may well be determined by Government and regulatory handicaps to ensure “fairness” (e.g. to avoid post code lotteries between geographic locations) and/or ration scarce resources (e.g. test kits and or protective equipment for “key” workers).
[Sir Henry Wellcome said that he liked “to support a research centre as another gentleman might support a racing stable”. I was a corporate planner for the Wellcome Foundation and had brief access to the some of the files of his official biographer. I have since found his approach to predicting the likely success of research teams applicable to most projects, programmes and policies.]
How IT changed our response to plague
IT has made many contributions to expediting our response, from shortening the timescale to produce tests and vaccines, to the ability to organise mass track and trace. By far its biggest impact, however, has been to shorten the timescale to report and analyse information, to model the implications and to communicate results. It has also enable rumour and fake news to spread even faster.
This the first plague where predictions of its likely local impact reached rulers/politicians/journalists before their subjects/voters/readers starting falling ill and/or dying in large numbers. In 2009, during the Swine Flu episode this gave the World Health Organisation a new dilemma, covered in the Lancet Article “Moral panic and pandemics“. This was: “Would premature over-reaction result in more deaths, because of the diversion of resources from other health programmes?”. We can see fears of that now happening.
The WHO Guidance for Coronavirus calls on Governments to “Adapt strategies based on risk, capacity and vulnerability … at the lowest administrative level possible in each country to ensure a tailored and appropriate response depending on the situation and capacities to respond.” How local Governments interpret and implement that guidance will play a major role in determining winners, losers and the scale of social and economic change that we will see as we emerge (probably gradually) from total lock down into the “new normal”.
The WHO guidance (below) refers to the importance of “community engagement”. Chatham House has issued an excellent short article on why such engagement is critical to re-opening the economy while controlling the risk of relapse. IT and social media will have a major role in ensuring that Government policy and public opinion are “in step” as we adapt to the new normal.
The WHO Guidance on lifting lockdown
The WHO guidance on “Transitioning to and maintaining a steady state of low‑level or no transmission” refers to
“countries and subnational authorities and communities, managing a controlled and deliberate transition from a scenario of community transmission to a sustainable, steady state of low-level or no transmission … [approach, ensuring that] Communities are fully engaged and understand that the transition entails a major shift, from detecting and treating only serious cases to detecting and isolating all cases, that behavioural prevention measures must be maintained, and that all individuals have key roles in enabling and in some cases implementing new control measures.
“Decisions about when and where to transition must be evidence based, data driven and implemented incrementally. It is essential to have real-time, accurate data on the testing of suspected cases, the nature and isolation status of all confirmed cases, the number of contacts per case and completeness of tracing, and the dynamic capacity of health systems to deal with COVID-19 cases.
“To reduce the risk of new outbreaks, measures should be lifted in a phased, step-wise manner based on an assessment of the epidemiological risks and socioeconomic benefits of lifting restrictions on different workplaces, educational institutions, and social activities (such as concerts, religious events, sporting events). Risk assessments may eventually benefit from serological testing, when reliable assays are available, to inform understanding of population susceptibility to COVID-19.
“Ideally there would be a minimum of 2 weeks (corresponding to the incubation period of COVID-19) between each phase of the transition, to allow sufficient time to understand the risk of new outbreaks and to respond appropriately.”
The depth and length of the global recession and the winners and losers will depend on how nations around the world, not just our own, respond.
The UK is uniquely centralised and standardised: from Public Sector decision taking to Newspaper and Broadcasting Media responses to the problem of day by calling for the Prime Minister to visit somewhere and/or do “something”. The idea of regional variations, e.g. that London might be locked down while Norfolk (including Norwich) was not, was taboo.
Our media think the rest of the world is like us. It is not.
The US Federal Government can only issue guidelines to the states . Many of the states, faced by protests , are leaving the response, to “cities” and “counties” – many much smaller than UK local government units. China is a “regionally decentralised authoritarianism”. Behind the façade presented to the outside world, its response is similarly granular. The responses of the members of the European Union are similarly varied. That is why a meaningful collective response is so difficult and cross-border freedom of movement has been suspended.
Much current planning is based on the 2007 study of the variability of US recovery, by city, county and by state after the 1918 flu epidemic. Some US cities and counties did not suffer at all. Other had bounced back within a year or so. Other had not yet recovered when the Great Depression knocked them down again. We can see a similar variety of responses across the world this time round, from South Korea and Taiwan, at one end, to Japan and Brazil at the other.
We can expect a similar local variety today. But, thanks to the Internet, the economies of the world are far more inter-dependent. They rely on complex inter-connected supply chains and global products and services. The variety will not just be between individual regions and nations. We can expect whole sectors across the world, not just individual businesses, charities and institutions, to suffer permanent, even terminal, damage. Meanwhile other sectors and businesses, such as those organising on-line learning, can be expected to move from niche to mainstream.
“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen” Lenin
The varying local, national and global approaches will expedite economic, social and geo-political changes that have been gathering pace over the past decade.
But some trends may be halted, or even reversed, as travel is halted, supply chains are broken and risk investment dries up.
Much depends on how governments around the world extricate themselves from the policy corners into which they have painted themselves in recent weeks. There is nothing so hard as for expert committee to change their collective minds as new “evidence” emerges.
The success of Government recovery strategies will, in turn, depend on how well political decision-takers predict, manage and/or respond to evolving public opinion and ensure “Communities are fully engaged and understand“, as per the WHO guidance . The techniques for doing so in the Internet age may look different but the principles (and strategies) appear redolent of those used by Governments in the past. honing messages to fit what their market research tells them the audience wants to hear, moving forward neither too fast, nor too slow.
Confidence in Government and the Health Services is critical and is being achieved despite the “Media”
So far 80 – 90% of the public, across most of the world, have accepted state control on a scale unprecedented outside total war. The active voices of dissent are howled down by a remarkable global consensus . Britain is not alone in having surprising adherence to social distancing despite the “rules” being looser than many other nations.
That consensus is not universal and will not last if significant sections of the public lose faith that “we are all in this together” and “the authorities” know what they doing.
As yet, however, surveys indicate that public confidence that the UK Government knows what it is doing has risen nearly 20% . Meanwhile that in the media pundits who criticise it has fallen by over 20%. Only the German Federal Government has seen a greater improvement in confidence among the nations compared in that study.
Ignorance, rumour and fake news compounded by mythology
The lack of confidence in the media may reflect the way the advertising-funded Internet has all-but wiped out the local newspapers which used to train most professional journalists. Today we are largely dependent for local news on rumours news spread via social media. So too are the pundits of the national media. A consequence is widespread ignorance over what is happening locally, from volunteering to making PPE, let alone nationally. Even journalists themselves do not think they are doing a good job, being too focussed on “holding government to account” and insufficiently focussed on telling people what is actually happening locally or nationally.
This has led, inter alia, to a muddled debate in the UK over whether our ”little ships” would have done a better job of organising, testing and supplying protective clothing for local hospitals, care homes etc. than Public Health England. That confusion is compounded by ignorance on all sides about what is already being provided locally by, or is potentially, available from UK suppliers on the part of those used to followed EU procurement rules (bulk purchases advertised in the OJEU and awarded to the lowest bidder). The results include abundance in parallel with shortage and UK variations on the global pandemic of corruption .
This debate is particularly misleading because of the mythology about what really happened at Dunkirk. The true “miracle” of Dunkirk was the success of the propaganda exercise to distract attention from the enormity of the military catastrophe and belief that the war was over.
The first broadcast news of the evacuation was followed by a whimsical account by John Betjeman of the vessels bringing troops back to Dover . He listed some of the well-known pleasure boats and paddle steamers conscripted to help the “grey wolves” of Royal Navy. It is still rarely mentioned that nearly all the “little ships” were manned by naval ratings, nor that they were implementing an evacuation plan on which Admiral Ramsey and his staff had been quietly working since before the BEF advanced into Belgium.
Had anyone outside the team known about that planning exercise it would have been stopped in its tracks by those aghast at such lack of confidence in the competence of those in charge of the BEF. An unfortunate side effect has been a misplaced belief in the unique ability of the British to “muddle through”.
We will need to take a cool look at how public health systems around the world have coped (from South Korea to Germany) as Governments implemented their local contingency plans for a pandemic or not, because the cost to their health care systems was unacceptable, as is alleged to have happened in the UK.
But it is not just our Public Health structures and systems that will need review. The way health, safety, data protection, financial services, communications, trading standards and other regulators and agencies (both central and local government) have performed needs rapid review to ensure they help, rather than hinder, recovery and can evolve as we enter the “new normal”.
Opinion is currently divided between those who believe that the UK response to Covid illustrates the need for more centrally planned command and control systems across the whole economy and those who believe it illustrates that our Westminster-centric, steam age nation-state is overdue for the scrap yard.
It is probable that both extremes are equally wrong.
The world will not be the same. Recovery will depend on identifying and harnessing the winds of change, not pissing in them in a vain attempt to recreate the past.
But we will also need to recognise and accept what has not changed.
We will need to create a more nuanced mix of top down planning and bottom up initiative. We may also need to accept local variations and choice, alias “post code lotteries”, unfair though they may seem. That will be a massive challenge to our uniquely centralised British state.
Will our equally centralised media help or hinder?
Or will the burgeoning of local self help groups lead to the re-creation of devolved accountability , information and media in the UK.
And what part will IT and Social media play in that evolution.
The sections below are structured as follows:
1. The nature and side effects of the socio-political immune response
2. The social, economic and geo-political changes previously gathering pace
3. The immediate/short term impact of Covid
4. Likely medium to long-term changes
5. Setting the people free or a new totalitarianism
En route I will comment on the implications for the on-line world and for current and would-be communications, digital and systems professionals
1 The nature and consequences of the socio-political immune response
1.1 The Public Health View
As with many illnesses, it is not the original infection that causes the damage. It is the immune response. The same applies to the political and social response – total lockdown while Government works out what is happening and how to respond.
The logic of the contingency plans previously drawn up by officials (not just in the UK) for handling a pandemic involved “battlefield triage” and the acceptance of few hundred thousand (a few million in the case of China or the US) deaths if track, trace and isolate took failed and we had to wait for “herd immunity” to take effect.
Faced by the political consequences of implementing such plans Governments around the world, whether democratic or totalitarian, centralised or devolved, opted to “save” their local health services at the expense of their economies. In doing so they have had almost uniform public support.
But the choices were not “science-based”. The “science” is neutral.
Rich countries, like Sweden or Iceland, have made different choices. Poorer countries whose medical services were regularly overwhelmed by epidemics had to choose between death by deprivation and death by plague. The differences are more to do with culture and geography than democracy or totalitarianism.
Chatham House succinctly described how those choices came about when it launched its programme to cover the variety of responses and economic survival strategies as mass unemployment and the slump in global trade gather pace. Many others are now running similar exercises. Of more immediate use, however, is the Royal Society exercise to review the data analytics behind those responses and feed their findings direct into Government before they are publicised.
The Royal Society exercise should also provide an invaluable update to studies based on past pandemics, like the 2007 study of the economic impact of the 1918 Flu epidemic in the US . That study showed just how varied the impact was across the US. Cities with well organised local public health systems suffered least and recovered fastest. Some were back to normal inside 18 months. Others had still not fully recovered by the time of the Wall Street crash. This helps explain the decentralised approach of the US today. Meanwhile the stresses that have emerged as China and Japan seek to move out of lockdown indicate this will not be an easy or orderly process whether the society is, in our eyes, totalitarian or democratic.
1.2 The stock market view
There has been a flow of analyses and forecasts from stockbrokers and financial services players seeking to reassure or educate their customers, large or small.
These have the advantage of being agnostic, reflecting the collective wisdom of those gambling with their own and their clients money, as opposed to the vested interest of those seeking to influence government policy.
Some are “confidential”, some are not.
A quick summary of the trends identified includes:
- Deglobalisation and a new localism: because the insecurity of complex international supply chains and subcontracting has been savagely demonstrated. The winners include providers of automation equipment and providers of industrial and logistics property. The losers include shipping, overseas contract manufacturing and emerging markets
- Decarbonisation and depollution: the perceived (among some analysts) link between susceptibility to infection and air pollution leads to expectations of increased regulation. Winners include smart/alternative energy suppliers and electric transport. Losers include oil, coal and polluting industries.
- Decentralisation of Health Care: the problems faced by centralised health care systems designed to operate at high capacity are expected to lead to a shift towards networks of local operations providing diagnostic, monitoring and support/call-out services for on-line access by local general practice, nursing/care home staff, paramedics and pharmacists. The winners are expected to include suppliers of diagnostic and monitoring equipment and software. The losers will include those dependent on supplying, supporting large centralised facilities. [This trend is expected to be slow burn (because of the massive financial and personal capital invested in current approaches) but inexorable].
- Remote buying, selling and working: the sudden shift on-line for most businesses will be partially reversed, but only partially. The winners will include suppliers of enterprise software, cloud and telecoms services and technologies, local delivery services and cyber criminals. The losers include retail, commercial and office property owners, travel, transport (both business and commuting) and hospitality.
- The death of cash: concern over infections passed by handling coins and notes has expedited the move towards a cashless society at all levels. Increasing numbers of traders are refusing to accept cash, even for low value transactions, supported by Governments.
But what comes next?
The time has come to look at the consequences of the collective choices that have been made around the world, beginning with their impact on the local and global changes previously under way.
2) The social, economic and geo-political changes previously under way
The industrial revolution led to a steadily growing integration of global economies, supply chains and cultural/social values over the century from 1815 to 1914. Then came 50 years of war, recession and stand-offs between collectivist (Fascist/Communist) and liberal (Democratic/Mixed Enterprise) regimes before the process resumed after the end of the Cold War. It then gathered pace with cheap, mass-market international communications, transport and travel.
Today local businesses (from agriculture to aerospace, food to pharmaceuticals) commonly rely on complex international supply chains to compete with rivals on the far side of the world, except where markets are “distorted” by protectionist local governments or regional groupings like the European Union.
The Covid pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains (from electronic components to cheap hospital gowns and face masks) more dramatically than Brexit or War. Mass unemployment will now increase pressures on central and local government to source locally for job creation, as well as to reduce vulnerability.
2.2 Expectations of Cheap Online Access: whether local or global
Most of the world now expects cheap, or even “free”, access to globally networked search engines, social media, entertainment, learning etc., funded by the provision of personal details, location and browsing history to advertisers. The process is mediated via a handful of US players (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) who employ armies of accountants, lawyers and lobbyists to help them avoid local taxation and regulation.
This has changed audience expectations. it has also split societies between those with fast broadband and those without and between those with digital dexterity and those without. Pages 8 and 9 of the Me and My Big Data Report illustrate the splits within the UK between those with easy access to information and transaction services and those without.
Those putting public services on-line have commonly failed to appreciate that the poor, frail, elderly and vulnerable, who are most dependent on them, are least likely to have access. In consequence they have been increasing the social divides they thought they were addressing.
The lockdown has resulted in telcos (both fixed and mobile) and “over the top” operators having to deliver critical infrastructure services while advertising and business revenues crumble. Meanwhile governments face the challenge of informing supporting millions of isolated, vulnerable and/or unemployed voters with little/no online access.
2.3 International, automated on-line market-places in place of local retail and personal service
From automated travel and hotel booking services, through on-line auctions and retail to taxi services, we have seen whole markets taken over by on-line operations, backed by global wealth funds (recycled oil/mineral royalties, pensions schemes etc.) until they become profitable. They have employed armies of accountants, lawyers and lobbyists to enable them to operate outside local tax and regulatory regimes. In consequence it can now be cheaper to shop on the far side of the world than the local high street, or to holiday in the Balearics than in Blackpool. Meanwhile immigrant uber drivers undercut local taxi drivers from London to Los Angeles and Air BnB has changed housing (not just accommodation) markets from Manchester to Madrid.
The sudden collapse in travel, plus supply chain/distribution problems have delivered major shocks at the same time that falling share prices (compounded by falling oil and mineral royalties) have impacted the ability of investors to wait for future profit.
2.4 The trading of Intellectual Property Rights as a prime source of Wealth
Over the past centuries copyright protection has been extended over time from 14 years (and void if “out of print”) in the fast moving Eighteenth Century to life of “author” + 50-100 years, whether or not the holder has brought the product to market. Patent protection has seen similar creep, whether or not the “holder” brings product to market.
The way patent trolls have milked and/or bankrupted inventors and innovators, conflicts over the patenting of natural products and different approaches to the balance between academic freedom and intellectual property, according to whether research was funded by universities, research councils, government departments and/or private industry, were already placing the “system” under pressure.
Then come international accusations between pots and kettles as to which nations are the biggest global transgressors when it comes to “piracy”.
The way in which US patents and copyright had come to dominate the evolution of the Internet was already leading to a creeping transfer of power from ICANN and the IETF to the ITU. That transfer is likely to be expedited whether or not ICANN responds to the request of the Californian Attorney General to halt the sale of the Public Interest Registry to a consortium organised by Goldman Sachs
The way in which pharmaceutical companies , universities and manufacturers have waived or pooled IPR to expedite the production of equipment, test existing medicines and/or develop new tests or vaccines demonstrates that IPR and processes for safety testing and regulatory approval are now the main barrier to innovation. That will greatly increase pressures for changes to all three as we move into global recession and need to encourage/reward wealth-creating innovation, including (but not just) that which will protect us if /when future pandemics occur.
2.5 Chinese domination of infrastructure investment (including the fixed and mobile networks that carry the Internet)
From the “outsourcing of Nortel‘s entire product line to Huawei” to the Belt and Road initiatives , China has focussed its efforts on economic rather than military expansion across the Southern Hemisphere, replacing the former colonial powers (including the USA) as their prime source of investment. Its parallel policy of sending talented youngsters to study and work in Western research programmes of interest has helped underpin the finances of many Universities and high tech start ups.
The recent announced collaboration between the World Health Organisation and the International Telecommunications Union to use mobiles to convey Covid health messages, beginning with South East Asia, follows on from a major investment by China in the ITU working parties and may further shift the balance of power from western dominated Internet Governance operations, like ICANN, IETF and the IGF towards the ITU, into supporting which the Chinese have put so much effort.
The way previously welcome African guests were treated as China went into lockdown and its refusal to consider waiving infrastructure loans have led to a view that there will be a backlash against them as future trade partners. This view should, however, be balanced against the effects of the sudden cancellation of contacts (from flowers to clothing) from western purchasers. There are also calls, some more nuanced than others, for the West to rethink its attitudes toward trading relations and political relationships with China.
If China emerges first from lockdown and proceeds to help its target customers to do so, this trend is likely to continue. Western Universities seeking to rebuild their earnings from overseas students are unlikely to be willing to change their policies. While the UK may well use the opportunity of Brexit to enthusiastically embrace tariff-free “trade not aid” we are unlikely to be able to compete. We are far more likely to seek ways to intermediate between the US and China, exploiting the neutral position of the City of London.
3. The immediate/short term impact of Covid
“Innovations that took months and years are now being agreed in days” – Chief Executive of the UK NHS Confederation
3.1 The world has moved on-line and the Internet is now a key critical infrastructure utility
A reliable Internet connection has overtaken a gas supply as the third critical infrastructure utility. It is not yet regulated as such. The “best efforts” principle is no longer sufficient. That will add weight to the moves at the United Nations to transfer “authority” from bodies like ICANN and the IETF to the ITU. The current internecine war within the Internet community over the sale by the Internet Society of the Public Interest Registry to a consortium organised by Goldman Sachs has led to the “discovery” by much of the on-line community that neither ISOC nor ICANN have the governance structures they thought. Whatever the outcome, those outside the cyber-security community have finally discovered just how vulnerable the Domain Name System has become since attempts led by some of the Global Brand names (including Banks) and US and UK law enforcement to cleanse it were abandoned.
Meanwhile the main “over the top” Internet service providers have made a wide range of contributions to help their customers, audiences and the rest of society cope with the crisis.
The underlying UK telecoms infrastructure, over which we access the Internet, has coped much better than I expected with a net 30% increase surge in daytime traffic (mainly from home-based workers and their children replacing the previous business load). Meanwhile the evening peaks are lower because there are no major sporting events.
But there has been a net fall is revenue for those who build and maintain the fixed and mobile networks over which most of use access the Internet. This is because the fall in revenues from business traffic has not been balanced by increased revenues from consumer traffic. The main beneficiaries from the latter have been those providing subscription-based or pay-per-view/download content, games and social media (e.g Zoom, House Party) services.
This means that the business and funding models assumed by regulators like Ofcom will have to change – perhaps into line with models common across Scandinavia – where many customers (residential as well a business) pay the cost of connection up front with subsequent charges to cover operating and equipment upgrades only. This has serious implications that I will cover below.
3.2 Return of mass unemployment, protectionism and personal financial insecurity and austerity
We are now seeing overt and concealed (Government-funded furlough) unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s, possibly even longer. That means central and local government will come under massive pressure to focus future plans and procurement on economic recovery and job creation.
That will need to include use of the UK Social Values legislation to mandate explicit and quantified support for local job creation (including support for training and retraining) in all procurements, including those under the EU procurement directives (and advertised in OJEU) while these still apply. The potential for doing this under existing legislation has been almost entirely ignored in, for example, NHS procurement contracts but is commonplace across the rest of the EU.
Hence the current UK reliance on, for example, imported PPE, ignorance as to what can be manufactured locally to short order and complaints that we import from, but cannot export to, other members of the EU. A side effect of our lack of foreign languages is that it has been “too difficult” for those in most UK procurement agencies to look at how the rest of EU interprets “the rule book”.
We can expect the pressures to include stopping those running public sector IT project from importing contractors from India.
We can expect pressure on Government to implement the recommendations of the House of Lords select committee and reform IR35 in time to stop forcing newly unemployed independent contractors to work through expensive (for the customer) umbrella organisations which would not pay them to keep their skills up to date. The currently planned changes to IR35 need to be not only postponed but fundamentally rethought in the face of the potential collapse of full-time employment across much of the private sector.
Portfolio working, including from home, was already growing steadily but may be about to become the new normal. .
Almost half of all Britons have said they will have to change spending plans. A quarter of those aged under 34 have said they are using up savings. Many of those working in entertainment and catering, used to insecurity, have sought jobs in retail and delivery but the lower pay means that a bounce back in spend is unlikely. Surveys of what people plan to when they get out of lockdown indicate that going for walks in the country come ahead of dining out or going to events. Surveys of how Britons are using their time during the lock down also indicate that they are avoiding that which will eat into their funds (unless the increase in sexual activity leads to a baby boom).
Only 9% ae using the opportunity to acquire new skills. We need to enable and encourage many more to do so, lest they will not have a job to return to.
3.3 Collapse of businesses unable to move on-line or “hibernate”
Covid has expedited the process of retail apocalypse but with a twist, as players like Amazon are unable to distinguish between essential and in-essential goods for delivery and have to subcontract delivery to meet demand. Meanwhile, all who can switch to on-line delivery are doing so, reviving old fashioned bicycle deliveries from local shops, restaurants and pubs, not just along the supply chains of the US giants of the Internet. One of the main beneficiaries of those supporting “the new localism” has been Just Eat.
Meanwhile well-known non-food high street and city centre retailers that were already in trouble (such as Debenhams, Oasis and Warehouse have toppled over into receivership. Others like Arcadia are planning massive retrenchment,
Those restaurants, pubs and wine bars which have not been able to move customers on-line with home deliveries have had to lay off their staff and close. Others are hoping to survive long enough to benefit from any spending “spree” when low risk cohorts with secure jobs and discretionary spend are released early from lockdown. But is may be much longer before older age groups, with more discretionary spend, finally emerge from hibernation to take the family out. Current surveys indicate home entertaining and walks in the country or park will come first.
Much government effort is around facilitating business “hibernation” but the sums on offer are of limited value to many IT businesses. The Tech UK and IPSE newsletters describes their efforts in this space.
See below for the medium to long term impact on the holiday trade.
3.4 Education has moved on-line, opening up a gulf between those with supported on-line access and those without.
A report by the Sutton Trust indicates both the speed with which school have gone on-line and the gaps that have opened up. They found that only a third of children are signed up to on-line learning. Pupils at independent schools are twice as likely to do so. There is another gap between schools in affluent area and the rest. When it comes to parental support there is a similar gap between those with higher level qualifications and those without. There is also the gap between those with laptops and bedrooms of their own and those who have to share with siblings and/or parents.
The DfE has brought forward action to help schools and pupils with technology including via the Education Technology programme supported by London Grid for Learning (which upgraded it broadband connections to over a thousand schools in the six months before the outbreak) and Sheffield Hallam
These is a most welcome contributions towards the immediate problem and bodes well for the future. But it highlights the risk of a longer term divide between schools with and without full fibre broadband connections, adequate local connectivity for home access by teachers and pupils and local provision for well-equipped safe study areas and equipment for homework when their school re-opens.
These have to be addressed if we are not see a new gulf between educational
- haves – where teachers are able to focus on education (including how to behave and interact with others) with pupils able to use technology to acquire and demonstrate learning skills and competences at their own pace specific
- have-nots – where teachers are struggling to keep order and ensure the majority achieve basic literacy and numeracy, unable to make use of technology to help occupy, let alone educate, those in their charge.
There are similar gaps at further and higher levels, with the added risk of financial implosion among colleges and universities unable and/or unwilling to similarly go on-line . Those already in difficulty will face the stresses of re-opening and “getting back to normal” after the lock down lifts.
Later this year will come the loss of overseas students. If the joys of gregarious student social life do not form part of the “new normal” we can also expect more applicants to favour less expensive local access to higher education, including on-line via the Open University and/or graduate apprenticeships, to incurring debts they may never repay.
Much of what I predicted last spring is now under way – with decision timescales cut from years to weeks, or even days.
Meanwhile the return of mass unemployment opens up the opportunity and need for retraining on a massive scale, to move staff from dead and dying jobs to growing industries requiring new skills.
The import of skills in short supply around the world will become politically unacceptable. Those advocating it will suffer serious reputational damage, unless they are seen to be also opening up training opportunities to UK applicants to reduce the need.
We need to see immediate programmes to encourage those currently in lock down to start acquiring new skills, not merely decorating the house or tidying the garden, let alone binging on box sets.
3.5 The pressures on central and local government to make on-line services fit for use by those who need them most
The most publicised example has been the need for DWP to deploy extra 10,000 staff to handle the peak in benefits claims. Its problems were compounded by relying on the Verify service to identify new claimants applying on-line. Verify has still not fixed problems identified by its advisory board over five years ago. DWP has now re-opened access via the Government Gateway , already used by many of the newly unemployed (including those previously self employed and/or otherwise filing personal tax returns who had been unable to get Verify identities because … ).
There are similar usability issues to do with those seeking on-line access to local NHS services for the first time. The elderly and vulnerable, who use the NHS most, are commonly dependant on the telephone, with volunteers delivering medication and food where necessary, because few have succeeded in registering to use the on-line services, even if they have their own Internet access. Physical hands-on workshops to help them do so have been suspended. In consequence demand for non-Covid services is rationed by the ability to get through. This helps reduce immediate pressure but creates a time bomb for when the lockdown is lifted.
There has been impressive progress in the short order delivery of innovative new systems to help handle the response to the outbreak and the consequences of lockdown but the pressures will not ease up as we move into the “new normal”. Many of the most vulnerable will remain in isolation for several months, at least. The pressures to help them get on-line for health care and social contact will increase that to improve the ease of use of NHS, Social Services and other Central and Local Government services.
3.6 The closure of youth, sport, community and social facilities
This increases problems of isolation and deprivation. It also increases the risk of widespread disorder among those with neither jobs not education opportunities. Such facilities need to be rapidly re-opened and expanded as the lock down is lifted. Perhaps youth and community workers should be classified as “key workers” and released early from lock down to help plan this, so that youth facilities, in particular, can re-open in parallel with schools.
I happen to convene the local Community Safety Partnership workstream of my local Neighbourhood Forum . I was pleased to receive a notice from my local council inviting me to an online workshop on “Strategies and Actions to help your Youth and Play organisation survive in the short, medium and long term.” But survival is not enough.
I will be canvassing support locally for an exercise to recruit volunteers with the necessary enthusiasm, attitudes and aptitudes to help plan, organise and deliver a full range of attractive, interesting and challenging (but also safe) activities for adolescents to look forward to, as soon as they are allowed out again.
3.7 Crumbling of Central and Local Government Revenue Streams as spend increases
There are forecasts from local government of “financial failure” and “extreme cost cutting” as receipts from transport and parking charges fall. Revenues from business rates will fall and rent “holidays” will need to granted to social housing tenants. There may also be a need to relax enforcement of the community charge. Central Government will face lower receipts from PAYE, National Insurance and Corporation as unemployment rises and profits fall.
Government will come under great pressure to tax on-line businesses to the same level as physical businesses. The on-line equivalent of UK business rates is unclear but we can expect rapid action to end the loopholes which allow major players to route on-line sales (and their VAT and Corporation Tax) off-shore (via Dublin or Luxembourg) or via Crown Dependencies (along with profits, IPR licenses and royalties etc). . It will be interested to see whether Treasury plans to block flows through the latter or requires them to levy taxes akin to those in the UK and to help fund our overseas aid and defence budgets.
We can also expect to see action to close the property tax loopholes that have led to thousands of London (and other City centre) homes in foreign ownership standing empty. The risk of a net loss of revenue from driving the wealthy off-shore will be discounted, because Governments around the world will be under pressure to do the same.
Hopefully Central and Local Government will also look at how to encourage innovative new, tax paying, businesses, perhaps turning grants and loans into equity stakes rather than demanding claw back.
4 Likely medium to long term changes
4.1 Travel patterns and supply/distribution chains
“People travelling up and down motorways just to hold meetings is inefficient expensive and not good for the environment. I think that use of roads, rail and indeed bus will be reduced after this” – President of the AA quoted by BBC
There may be a short post-lockdown spurt among those permitted to travel (e.g. delayed business meetings, trade shows and professional/academic conferences) but surveys indicate both short and long term declines in the use of public transport even more than private cars. Unlike the bounce-back in global travel after the shock of 9/11, the impact of financial and austerity will and delay and mute the recovery – seriously weakening the business case for .improving international passenger travel facilities (e.g. the extra runway at Heathrow). The recovery will be even more muted if plans to put major commercial events on line and have sporting events without spectators are successful.
The potential and practicalities of working from home, on-line platforms for meetings that previously required hours of travel have been demonstrated. So too have the limitations of remote working and video-conferencing. These are not so great as to lead to a return to previously volumes of commuter traffic, let alone to travelling hours to attend short meetings not linked to social networking. Commuter traffic into London, already in decline, is not expected to fully recover. The fall in intra-UK business traffic will weaken the case for investing in high speed rail to cut long haul travel times, as opposed to improving freight capacity and bringing forward local projects to improve reliability, capacity and/or resilience.
Even before politicians across Europe, including the UK began advising their voters to put off summer holiday and/or consider domestic staycations, few appeared to be using the period at home to plan them. More appeared to looking forward to trips to the park, country walks and family get-togethers. There is, however, likely to be a further delay before pensioners (at greater risk) are permitted to travel and/or feel confident to do so . There may well be a shift towards holidays within the UK, especially if there are fears of recurrences around the world. if so, this may increase the pressure to address bottlenecks on the routes to UK holiday destinations, e.g. the South West.
The shock to international supply chains in parallel with the rapid expansion of home delivery services is likely to bring about permanent changes based on “a new localism”. Thus the trend towards sourcing fresh vegetables from semi-automated operations like Thanet Earth instead of trucked across Europe will accelerate. Much will, however, depend on whether the lock down does more damage to local independent caterers and retailers or to chains. That is likely to depend on how Government rescue packages work in practice.
4.2 Investor priorities and On-line business models
Share prices have fallen around the world. Add the prospect of widespread dividend cuts and sovereign wealth and funds will no longer have significant cash flow for reinvestment. Investors who have also been hit hard by falling oil revenues may need to press those in which they have previously invested to deliver cash returns and not just growth. We have therefore already seen some cloud, business intelligence and AI businesses, like Domo, to lay off staff despite being backed by large, previously well financed, funds. This may also impact the business models of much larger players which have yet to show a profit, e.g. Airbnb and Uber. Even Amazon may come under pressure to deliver shareholder return and not just growth.
Meanwhile dramatic falls in advertising and market research spend may finally be about to force changes in the business models of on-line players, large and small. Some advertisers, which had been reviewing their on-line spend to avoid being associated with harmful content, have taken global decisions to increase their advertising of household brands. Others are changing focus. But most have been cutting back sharply, leading to furloughs and layoffs in agencies large and small.
A UK example is Mumsnet, a free social media service, offering support and advice for parents, never more needed than at present. The collapse of advertising revenue means that it is having to consider a subscription service. This is not going down well with its audience.
Given that so many internet business models assume the value of collecting “big data” for market research and/or to help target advertising, this has profound implications for on-line business models which assume the value of information to sell to advertisers and/or “free” advertising funded products and services.
Will there be a recovery next year?
Which businesses can survive that long, given the change in investor willingness to cover any gap?
Either way we well see a return to business models which begin modestly with the potential to scale fast on positive cash flow, rather than burn through investors funds until a profit is achieved. Investors will once again be looking for the supposed “traditional” Internet business model: “Begin small, test on the target audience, then repackage and scale hard on success.”
It does not help that players are having consider such profound changes in the year that sees both the EU Data Protection and Californian Consumer Privacy begin to bite. Around the world readers and viewers are increasingly being given a choice whether to accept cookies or provide information on their activities. And many are saying “No”.
Perhaps more important questions are:
“How much (extra) are consumers willing to pay for what, if there is now advertising subsidy or revenue from data sales?”
“Will they pay per item of service or by subscription?”
4.3 Infrastructure investment models and priorities
The squeeze on investors will impact infrastructure investment as a whole, except when funded by Governments themselves. There are many calls for Governments to switch from funding roads and railways and into broadband and/or 5G to support a world in which many more of us telecommute to work, travelling to physically meet with colleagues and customers on only two or three days a week.
But the falls, perhaps permanent, in on-line advertising revenues, reduce the incentives for the OTT internet giants to fund more than they are currently doing (mainly high capacity ultra-fast backhaul to link corporate clients to their datacentres and/or cut latency between themselves and the telcos who serve the public and SMEs). Even if they still have the funds.
Meanwhile the squeeze in revenues from business customers comes at the same time as incurring the need to invest in standby capacity and preventive maintenance to improve reliability, now that the Internet is part of local, national and international critical infrastructures (see 3.1 above).
There are global falls in property markets and rental values as demand for retail properties, hotels and, to a lesser extent office properties, falls, high street and shopping mall properties come on the market and tenants ask for rent “holidays”. We can expect falls in residential values as properties bought by overseas investors are “released” to plug funding gaps as their investment portfolios come under pressure. This will lead to a drop in central/local government receipts from property taxes (business rates, stamp duty etc.) and the incomes of many pensioners and charities while attempts are made to try rebuild shopping centres around “social” enterprises and innovative, high risk, start-ups dependent on positive cash-flow rather than savings or venture capital.
It may also lead to properties without high speed broadband connectivity (including in-building mobile reception) becoming unsaleable. This will give added incentive to property owners and local authorities to help pull through infrastructure investment by making wayleaves available at no charge in return for service.
We are therefore likely to see a change in business models with customers (or property developers/managers/landlords) paying up front for connectivity (the Swedish model) instead of the “Ofcom model”.
The business model on which current UK telecoms regulation is based assumes that the competitors to BT make a “risk investment” in the network in the hope/expectation that sufficient customers will renew their annual contracts for a decade or more to give pay back. Not only is the capital required very much higher, but investors also require a higher rate of return to cover that risk. Only when the network has the critical mass of customers necessary to attract leasing finance does the premium fall.
The time has come for Ofcom to regulate on price, quality of service (including the resilience required of a critical infrastructure utility) and behaviour. It should stop trying to predict costs and technologies, let alone business models. In particular it should allow operators to offer a choice of up front connection charges and/or long-term contracts instead or charges based on historic prices and/or costs and/or the need to cover risk investment.
4.4 The joining up of cyber-crime reporting, investigation, law enforcement and training, not just “awareness”
Covid has resulted in sudden increase in the number of sheep being herded on line to be fleeced. Over half the worlds workforce is in lockdown, trying to work from home. Hundreds of millions of untrained employees (both public and private sector) are accessing and downloading (in case the link goes down) the corporate crown jewels over insecure systems/networks that they share with their children. Lambs to the slaughter.
On the 8th April the UK NCA and US CISA were still being quoted as saying there was no increase in reported cybercrime , only a “retooling” to exploit the new opportunity. Barracuda was one of the first to report the scale and nature of that retooling with more literate, convincing and better targeted “spearfishing” attacks. On April 22nd Trend micro reported that a significant rise in attempts to compromise all types of equipment that might be used by home-based workers was already under way in the quarter to end March.
The attacks are now under way.
They range range from realistic looking notification letters from cdc.gov.org (the US Centers from Disease Control and Prevention is cdc.org) and advice from govuk.org (as opposed to gov.uk)on how to claim under the newly announced support programmes, through imitations of the Government smart phone texts, to “CoronusFinder” apps and the wide variety of money flipping scams (targeted at the newly unemployed) being promoted over Twitter and Instagram. The NCSC advisory notice on Covid related scams to date is here.
Unofficial figures from the NCA shortly before the launch of the new UK Cyberware campaign indicated a rise of reports by 37% since the start of the month. That was rationed by the difficulty of reporting. It will rise very sharply with the new, easy to use “Suspicious e-mails report system” . Over 5,000 e-mails had been forwarded and eighty “web-based campagns” taken down within the first day of operation.
The need for such an automated reporting system was flagged in 2004. It quickly became apparent that the obstacles were “political” (between departments and agencies) rather than technical. Last year the consequences of inaction were cruelly exposed in the Times and I blogged on how Action Fraud had been given an impossible task . A couple of months ago the Time did a follow up on the lack of action.
Then came Covid – and one of the “weeks when decades happen” after “decades when nothing happens“. Suddenly the political obstacles to joining up the UK response to cybercrime, under the oversight of a Home Office minister, evaporated. The pieces had long been in place. They were finally put together.
That is hopefully only the first step in the “long march” towards improved local, regional, national and global co-operation between Law enforcement and Industry to “take down” a new plague of cyber-criminals before they succeed in recruiting those millions of adolescents (of all ages) who are using lock-down to acquire and hone their coding and hacking skills.
The immediate challenge for business in to train hundred of thousands of IT staff, now working from home, to improve the security of corporate systems that were designed for relatively small numbers of remote users with carefully controlled access to sensitive data: not the entire workforce with access to everything. Then comes the task of teaching basic technical skills, including security and how to securely use systems not designed for remote access.
The SASIG webinar on St Georges Day included an excellent discussion on how to overcome the current low take-up of the wealth of training material available. Including the suggestion to package it into lively, 30 minute, weekly sessions, tailored to what the target audience really does need to know, focussed on “How To”, as opposed to “Don’t”. Organisations like the Security Company have a range of products to help large organisations do so. DSS Stream, from the digital arm of Newham College (which also looks after the apprenticeship programmes for players like O2) offers a similar service across a wider set of digital skills. There are also free materials for SMEs.
A particular need is to retain the loyalty and good will of those furloughed. One means is to help them acquire new skills while excluded from corporate systems. This is a good opportunity to help them do so at company expense, using some of the professional cybersecurity training courses that have been put on-line by companies like Bluescreen IT . All organisations will need many more staff with those new skills as the problems of cyber-crime get increase, while professional law enforcement struggles to cope with the post Covid crime wave, physical as well as on-line.
Even if proposals for a new wave of co-operation between law enforcement, industry and volunteers are agreed, it will take time for the processes for building mixed teams of police, security professionals and other volunteers to produce results.
4.5 Liberty or Death: Privacy or Covid
There is headline debate over whether the breaches of privacy principles are a price worth paying to bring Covid under control. Meanwhile RIPA is about to be extended, including to give powers to some local authority functions.
Contract tracing “apps” are expected to play a critical role in bringing Covid under control, let alone in enabling lockdown to be lifted before it does irreparable economic damage. South Korea is often cited as a model of how to do this. But we are told that they way they did so would unacceptable for the UK. Trace Together is said to have played a manor role in bringing Covid under control in Singapore (with almost all cases now in the migrant hostels). But it is voluntary and said to be use by only 20% of the population as opposed to the NHS target of 80% of UK mobile phone users (the most mobile 80% of the population)
From the Netherlands, through France and Germany to Israel there is a growing tension between those who give priority to the “right” to be anonymous on-line and those who believe priority should be given to the ability to track and trace “super-carriers”, control the outbreak and expedite return to the “new normal” – with rapid action when recurrences occur.
The technologies used range from mandatory access to the GPS location of an individual’s mobile phone (as in China, South Korea and Taiwan), through the aggregated data provided by fixed and mobile operators and the community mobility reports provided by Google, to reports based on the voluntary exchange of Bluetooth data, as in Singapore or proposed by Apple and Google.
The Open Letter sent to NSHX states clearly the concerns of those concerned that the risk to privacy might outweigh the value to society.
They are quite right to be concerned. Government is targeting to have 18,000 contact tracers trained, vetted and in post by the time the UK has sufficient tests to support the programme.
Should we trust local public health officials, plus seconded staff from other local government departments, with data we would not allow to law enforcement under RIPA?
My personal answer is “Yes. But we should also introduce the penalties for abuse of access that were left out of RIPA“. The quick way is to implement the custodial penalties included in UK Data Protection legislation, as recommended by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee .
The use of Data Analytics to crunch not only the DNA of Covid but that of the victims through which infection have passed, has also raised an even more taboo subject – research into genetics. While we now know the fallacy of simplistic racial stereotyping, the implication that variations may have causes other than deprivation is causing serious disquiet. Yet the data from, for example Singapore, shows such variations
The time has come to conduct serious market research into public opinion on whether such concerns should have priority over “following the science” and tracking not only the sources of infectious diseases, how to bring the incidence under control and prevent recurrence, but who is actually most vulnerable.
If not, then comes the question as to whether anonymity over the Internet should also have the current priority over tracking and tracing cybercrime and abusive behaviour.
That leads us to the issues of cleaning up the domain name system, making a reality of “who is“, instead of allowing it to fade away under the excuse of data protection and privacy and “too difficult”.
That leads us back to 2.5 and 3.1 above and the Chinese led proposal to pass the governance of the Internet to the ITU.
4.6 Education, training, skills and freedom of movement
UK economic recovery after lockdown will require mobilising, motivating and reskilling several million, shell-shocked and angry unemployed/furloughed, including former students whose brains have atrophied except for decorating, gardening and binge-watching box sets. According to Ipsos Mori barely 9% have been using their new found leisure to acquire new skills and 6% to acquire new languages.
Universities, colleges and schools previously reliant on income from residential students from overseas face sharp income reductions This will accelerate the pursuit of other income sources, from training and consultancy for local employers, including to upgrade and renew the skills of former graduates and professionals, through the off-the-job component of graduate and post graduate level apprenticeships part-apprenticeships, to learning for learning for leisure – e.g. residential culture courses for pensioners no longer willing to risk a cruise or overseas tour.
Much of the UK commercial training industry will have faced a collapse in revenues as in-house and external corporate training has collapsed, except for those far sighted enough to move rapidly to use the opportunity to help employees acquire the new skills they will need when they come out of furlough.
As mentioned in 4.3 above, organisations like DSS, the digital arm of Newham College which also runs apprenticeship programmes for player O2 , have already moved many of their programmes on line. So too has Bluescreen IT, which runs the digital skills incubator in Plymouth. The first cloned incubator, (hosted by Barking and Dagenham College) had been due to come on stream with support from Amazon Web services at the end of March.
Government will need to start building on such initiatives now, i.e. before lockdown is over, in order to help get some of the two million back to gainful employment, not just or living on benefits and/or volunteering, as soon as we begin to come out of lockdown, however hesitantly and partially.
Relying on imported talent for skills in supposed short supply, e.g. IT and Digital, will no longer be politically acceptable. Nor will relying on immigrants for the NHS and care sectors, if large numbers of Britons, some with high level skills whose employer or industry has imploded, are out of work. Programmes like the NHS Nursing apprenticeships will need rapid overhaul, e.g. making use of on-the-job blended learning in place of academic off-the-job modules, to help overcome their known recruitment and retention problems.
The pressures to revive local production (from agriculture and food to automotive and pharmaceutical, let alone medical equipment and supplies) and reduce reliance on vulnerable supply chains will similarly require expansion of vocational training capacity across the UK, again using technology assisted blended learning to make best use of scarce teaching skills and get students productive and/or revenue earning as soon as practical.
There will not be time to allow such programmes to grind though Haldane-like research programme, curriculum planning, funding approval and other committees. Short-order, Industry strength market research will have to take the place of lengthy consultation processes.
But there is no need.
Several of the Sector Skills Councils survived attempts to kill them off, (because they did not kowtow sufficiently to the relevant academic funding councils). They joined the National Skills Academies to form FISSS, a collective of employer funded quality control consortia, organising and accrediting programmes. Another employer led consortium, TP Degrees rescued the ITMB, now offered by a dozen Universities. It also accredits undergraduate degree level apprenticeships with two dozen Universities and port-graduate apprenticeships with a dozen.
The necessary employer-driven frameworks are evolving alongside those driven by trade associations and professional bodies. The need is “merely” to recognise them and require anyone bidding for public funding to have their support or than of an equivalent critical mass of employers, public and/or private sector.
Obvious actions include:
1) “Encourage” all employers whose staff are on “furlough” to fund on-line training to help them acquire the technical and professional skills they will need when they return to work.
2) Require ALL those planning public sector procurements public sector procurements to use the Social Value legislation to include local employment, job creation and reskilling/training in their criteria in OJEU notices – not just nominal lowest price. it is the failure to do so which has led, inter alia, to our dependence on dodgy pan-EU, let alone global, supply chains for PPE etc.
3) Allow Universities, Colleges and other training providers to save themselves from bankruptcy by hosting their own locally planned, with both local and national employers, retraining programmes in the skills of the future, built round the needs of the employers/industries of the future, beginning by offering existing international, employer recognised, qualifications for skills already in short supply around the world.
4) Put full-fibre broadband before roads and railways in infrastructure investment and enable networked community access to the skills of the future via community learning centres (local schools, libraries, pubs and clubs), particularly for those who cannot readily learn at home because they have to share their bedroom, let alone kitchen/diner, with parents and siblings.
5) Use JANET, the Open University and the Grids for Learning (which provide broadband and content to schools) to create the world’s largest seamless, on-line market for wold-class education and training content, skills/aptitude assessment and careers advice driven by skills “vouchers” for the newly unemployed.
6) Reform IR35, particularly the restrictions on offsetting training to acquire new skills against current tax, to facilitate recovery around flexible and portfolio employment.
7) Abolish VAT on property improvement and unleash renovation, linked to construction industry apprenticeships, instead of rip-down and replace.
5. “Set the people free” or “Build a New Jerusalem”
5.1 Using IT to help manage expectations for the transition to the new normal.
The WHO guidance emphasises the need for community engagement (at the lowest practical level) at every stage, including the transition to the “new normal”, so that “consent” does not breakdown and lead to a second wave. The Chatham House note on how we re-open the economy makes the same point.
The UK Government decision to use the Royal Society to convene a data analytics group to analyse what we know about Covid and advice government was genius. It is as hard for an expert committee to change its mind in the face of new evidence as it is for a Government Department or Minister.
The Royal Society is less likely to be accused of MRDA than any current advisory body. The problem is that most Guardian or Telegraph Readers with confuse it with the Royal Institution . There is need for not only a flow of honest and accurate stories about how it is conducting its studies, to help manage expectations, but stories about the Royal Society itself – to help establish its credentials in the eyes of the public. Such publicity will have long term effects.
There is also a need to publish much more of what is known about the geographic and social incidence of Covid as this becomes known, perhaps even akin to the daily analyses available from Singapore . The objective should be to help prepare press and public to understand the papers and reports than come from the Royal Society and/or be ready for the recommendations. Genuinely informed debate over how far differences are “caused” by nature (including genetics) or nurture (diet, culture, education and/or deprivation) will have consequences for future debate on social cohesion and/or immigration.
Middle class pundits tend to patronise the sports-betting working class when it comes to discussing probabilities and the mix of track record (evidence), tips (punditry) and superstition (prejudice) on which bets (decisions) are based. The more we/they have open access to reliable data and education on the realities of AI to let us do our own analyses, the less likely we/they are to fall prey to fake news.
The consequent informed debate should also mean that the “establishment” is much less likely to be surprised by groundswell popular revolts (akin to the fuel protests of 2000 , the London Riots of 2011 or Vote Leave ). Part of the reasoning behind the WHO emphasis on community engagement is the historic “evidence” that Governments are particularly vulnerable to disorder during the aftermath of a plague.
Even in our current state of ignorance we know sufficient to predict that the balance between support for central/national top down planning/control/co-ordination and for devolved/local bottom up enterprise/co-operation will evolve as public opinion moves from “we are all in this together” to “one-size does not fit all”: Barsetshire is different to London and Ambridge to Borchester.
We can also see evidence of emerging splits between older generations and the young, unemployed, (burning through what savings they have or getting ever further into debt and looking forward to early release and a low tax recovery) as to whether those at low risk should be “set free” while the frail and vulnerable remain cocooned.
5.2 The role of IT/Social Media in rebuilding trust (in who and what)
Those media which carry local, as opposed to national, news were in a poor way even before Covid administered the coup de grace. Most us have no source of information as to what Local Government is doing other than, if we are lucky, community websites and mailing lists and, if we are unlucky, the rumour-monger machines of Facebook (edited/censored, or not, by local volunteers) and Twitter.
The evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee Enquiry into Technology and Democracy is apposite. But we cannot wait for their recommendations, let alone for Government to respond. More-over the evidence to date has probably been overtaken by a sea change in how the technologies are being used as well as in public attitudes, as most of the population of the world has come to rely on them for social contact, entertainment, employment and education – as well as political consultation, debate and decision-taking.
We need to build on the evidence the Lords have gathered and the experience of those who organised the Vote leave Campaign. But as in other areas we have days, not months or years, to agree how to use a mix of mass market research and data analytics of social media to monitor and assess the likely public reaction to the plans being floated for the incremental lifting of lockdown and transition to the new normal. Then we have to pick trusted channels to convey the necessary policy statements direct, not filtered by a press lobby seeking to re-establish its “power” after the experience of lock down.
This process is clearly well under way and will not stop after the transition to the new normal. It also promises/threatens to transform the role of elected politicians. It moves us towards an age of continuous on-line referendums. This is a new twist on the basic concept of Athenian democracy, for the many not the few . Those who “know” what the many want and what they think about proposed action plans do not need to bother with votes and elections. We need to remember that the Athenian way of life was destroyed by what came after the plague.
What will be the effect on democracy and the relationship between the people and Government after this plague.
5.3 Maintaining community consensus: nudge and the dictatorship of the pollsters and analysts replaces political debate
Public “debate” over the possible strategies for managing the transition from “lock down” to the “new normal” has barely begun, although there is agreement that it should be gradual and begin with getting children back to school and adults back to work.
That is possibly because the media expect Government to announce plans that they, and the opposition, will “scrutinise”. Meanwhile Government, following WHO advice, wishes only to announce that which it is confident will have community buy in. In the mean time the media fill the news vacuum with non-stories, such as the presence of the Government’s chief political advisor at scientific briefings, as though there should be difference between “science” and “politics” in responding to Covid
Even journalists believe there has been a fall in confidence in them as a source of news on what is happening. If government succeeds in using a mix of data analytics, large scale market research and targeted messages (using social media) to identify and gain support for policies that are socially/politically acceptable, enforceable and/or “fair” will we ever want to revert to the previous structures for policy formation? If so, that could lead to bigger changes to how our “democracy” operates than those being investigated by the House of Lords .
A paper from the Tony Blair Foundation, “A sustainable exit strategy” provides a good summary of the strategies for “easing suppression” around the world and how they are being evaluated by Governments as they seek the holy grail –
“politically acceptable” policies that will provide good
- medical (including reducing deaths and suffering from non-Covid causes),
- social (including reducing the risk of suicides and/or disorder)
- economic (less job and business destruction)
Almost all Governments are responding to pressures to ease restrictions on low risk sectors (e.g. farming, construction and manufacturing). In the UK this is seen as unfair but evidence of public confidence over returning to particular types of venue indicates that the public are thinking more rationally than the media. It might well be more practical and more widely supported in the UK than expected, while being largely self-policing – with those at risk continuing to isolate themselves.
An extension of HMG guidance on social distancing on the workplace to cover the use of non-surgical face masks to reduce the risk of transmission might greatly ease the embarrassment of a such major change of policy. The use of masks but is becoming compulsory across the world. The issue is how to change UK public guidance based on “scientific advice” into the message that the object is to reduce the risk of the wearer infecting others, not of others infecting them. A step first might be to make masks compulsory for those using public transport, to protect drivers and station staff. If so, we need to organise and publish market research into whether the UK public will react as positively such a message as have others around the world.
Several nations, from German and Italy to Japan and South Korea have lifted restrictions on a geographic basis. This is also in line with WHO guidance that controls should be implemented at the lowest practical administrative level. It is, however, seen as expensive, unfair, impractical and unenforceable in the uniquely centralised UK. The reality is that many local communities have implemented their own barriers to movement, including at ferry terminals.
None of the nations listed in the Blair report has segmented by age (seen as unfair) although most have now released schools (seen as fair).
At the other end of the political spectrum the Adam Smith Institute, in “Re-opening Britain“, has done similar analyses, including reference to the evidence that the healthy young do not appear to be at significant risk of “complications”. But it does not go further than the need to urgently allow business to recover. Policy Exchange, in the middle, focuses on the need for track and trace to underpin any release from lockdown. The others all take this a given.
5.4 Does a Government focus on predicting/engineering consensus make politicians redundant or merely change the way they behave?
Governments around the world, not just in the UK, are making extensive use of market research to help them formulate, implement and, where necessary adjust, policies that keep in step with the evolution of majority opinion. Examples in the UK include the market research being conducted by Ipsos Mori pandemic and You Gov .
Meanwhile analyses (whether provided by operators or Apple/Google) of the locations of the mobile phones, owned (and usually carried) by nearly 80% of the population give a clear idea of where they are at any given point in time – thus showing the success or otherwise of social isolation. This might be intrusive but would be a very powerful for enforcing segmented lockdown, which by sector or geography.
Many players are touting the value of analyses of social media, including Facebook postings and Tweets.
Reports like Me and My Big Data indicate, however, that the latter cover only a subset of those who Government needs on side. It may, however, provide a better way of influencing public opinion than the mainstream media who appear to be further losing influence.
5.5 Will six – twelve weeks of teleconferencing change the nature of political debate for good?
The lockdown has accelerated the plans of political parties and interest groups to move their activities on-line.
I recently took part in the Conservative Policy Forum exercise to hold its spring “competition” for new ideas over Zoom. Teleconferencing etiquette made for a much tighter format than normal political debate. That let to more insightful and varied questions and feedback from more participants. My responses were informed by the ability to see ALL the questions queued up, not just those picked by the moderator from a twitter or slido feed. I would compare the experience to a Real Time Club meeting where many of the audiences have a expertise to that of a speaker who is wanting to explore new ideas rather than preach to the converted.
It is too soon to tell whether that was because we were all new to the format or because the on-line tools change the way we behave.
After six to twelve weeks of lockdown we will all be sufficiently familiar with the tools to know.