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Global co-ordination on Covid-19, which has killed about 400,000 people worldwide so far, is a long way from where it needs to be, former UK prime minister Tony Blair told the CogX global leadership summit today.
“This is a unique situation in its scale and consequences, and in the really difficult decisions it presents governments with around risk – the risks of the disease itself, but also of lockdown, in terms of the economy,” he said.
Blair appealed for greater global collaboration between governments. “Every country’s interests are best served by coming together on certain key questions, like how you accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics, easy point-of-use testing of people, and how you co-ordinate global economic policies so that you reflate the economy after what will be a really deep recession,” he said.
“A certain degree of global co-ordination seems to be enlightened self-interest, and there have been attempts from the Europeans, the US and the UK, but we are still a long way from where we need to be.”
Blair was speaking in his capacity as founder of the research institute that bears his name. Teams from his institute are said to be “supporting leaders across the globe in their fight against Covid-19, as well as delivering analysis and advice to help countries mitigate the economic impact, source essential equipment, harness the power of technology and position themselves for the rebuilding to come”.
In dialogue with Jacqueline De Rojas, president of TechUK, Blair mused on whether the increased tempo and scale of change that Covid-19 has imposed on government, healthcare and education will be maintained after the crisis has passed.
“We’ve had more technology innovation in our healthcare system in the past 10 weeks than we have had in the last 10 years,” he said. “We’re driven by necessity to do things differently. Do we want to go back from online consultations – or online lectures in education?
“We’ve had more technology innovation in our healthcare system in the past 10 weeks than we have had in the last 10 years”
“Can government itself change? Getting things done is always difficult in government, and governments really don’t like change. Bureaucracies have a genius for inertia, not for momentum.”
By contrast, Blair said: “In business, people know they need to change, otherwise they will go out of business.”
He also said it was unfortunate that “politics on the left and right having gone more ideological” cuts against the need for practical problem-solving. “I can’t be sure what will happen afterwards, but what should happen is, we should put a huge focus on government and business working together, in the context of a renewed desire for social change,” he said. “There will be far less tolerance for inequality and social injustice.”
Blair added: “Everything was there before Covid, but has become accelerated and more vivid, and that includes the digital divide.
“If I were in government now, I would focus it around the technology revolution, making each component of government work with business in a different way. And that will mean bringing people into government with an understanding of technology. We’ve still got a very stratified civil service where really good people try to do their best, but in circumstances where detailed knowledge and skills is going to be important.”
Today’s technology revolution can only be compared in scope and scale to the industrial revolution, said Blair.
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He also noted that the current crisis is “very different to previous crises, like post-9/11 or the financial crisis [of 2008], in that all our lives have changed on a day-to-day basis”. That requires a very difficult balancing of risks for decision-makers in governments and clarity in communication, he said.
On a practical note, Blair said that for the economy, life and travel to restart, “people’s [Covid-19] disease status needs to be recorded in a way that can be used”. Otherwise, a return to near-normal is impossible, he warned.
“There has always been a good case for a digital ID, but that case is even more powerful today,” he added.
“You can create a digital ID today that is much more protected, so you can deal with a lot of the privacy and surveillance issues that worry people.”
The session at the virtual event was attended by an estimated 30,000 people, according to CogX organisers.