The pandemic has forced us to change behaviours more quickly over the past year than in any equivalent peacetime period in human history. Inherently social beings, humans were forced to stay at home and during the brief periods outside were told to remain ‘socially distant’, a dystopian and striking term that has become part of daily life. Our basic functions – work, seeing family and friends, exercise, shopping – changed fundamentally as offices closed, Zoom drinks and quizzes emerged, Joe Wicks became a national icon and Amazon thrived.
The same has occurred in our economy. A recent report showed that merely six months into the pandemic companies had accelerated the digitalisation of their customer and supply-chain interactions and internal operations, fast-forwarding trends by between five and ten years. The decline of the high street has been compounded as online retailers thrive. The old office culture – a key story of the post-war economy – will never fully return, affecting the nature of work forever.
These disruptive themes are true of the public sector, too. Teaching in schools has been done online. GP surgeries have closed to visitors. Hospitals have delayed appointments, as Covid-19 wards took priority across the NHS. Our courts have closed and where possible have relied upon remote hearings, with judges often sitting in their living rooms.
The challenge for policymakers is not to attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, but adapt and build an economy, society and public sector that uses these developments to build a better country. The Conservatives, we know, will see this as an opportunity to cut and lower standards in our public services. Labour must offer an alternative: embracing the use of technology and reform to boost efficiency and introduce new models of state services, whilst being alive to the challenges it poses in ensuring fairness.
Technology is changing the world. We must ensure it serves our progressive values. Take justice and the courts, for example. After a decade of court closures and cuts to legal aid and the Crown Prosecution Service, we have a situation, compounded by the pandemic and the suspension of jury trials, where there is a backlog of 55,000 criminal trials that need to be heard. Many civil hearings, on the other hand, have been effective remotely during this period – by telephone or other online platforms. Yet a majority of our county courts currently sit all but empty when they could be used for these long-delayed criminal cases.
I attended one such court this week for a hearing that could have easily taken place remotely. I found four court rooms not being used, but court staff – security, cleaners, ushers – sitting idly (they themselves complained to me of boredom). An imaginative government would be using these buildings to hear criminal and family cases that need to be in-person to ensure justice can be done expeditiously in these critical cases.
This appears to be a simple reform that could make an immediate difference but is seemingly beyond the Tory government. It would provide capacity where it is much-needed at negligible cost. At the same time, it would be an opportunity to use new technology in the civil sphere to raise standards and ensure we adhere to the critical principle of open justice.
More online hearings would enable us to collate more information and data about our justice system, which often remains surprisingly difficult to gather. Public judgments and court orders, a key component of our common law, could also be published and explained more efficiently. It remains a deep frustration that the courts and the law remain so impenetrable – the preserve of lawyers, rather than the public it serves.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to realise how archaic the current system is. To have expensive county court buildings, across the country, forcing people to travel often unnecessarily when cases can be dealt with swiftly over the telephone or via video conferencing facilities seems, only a year into a new way of working, absurd. This is especially so when we consider the waiting times in our criminal justice system.
This is just one example, but there is no reason why such lessons from the pandemic cannot be taken across the public sphere. Take healthcare, where the basic mechanics of primary care remain basically unchanged since 1948, with GPs acting as gatekeepers to services. Online consultations can help cut waiting lists for GPs, and act as a more efficient means of accessing the NHS treatment that a patient requires.
These developments should be embraced by the state, not left to private sector providers that seek profit and, albeit inadvertently, can hinder rather than support NHS services. Considering the success of the vaccine roll-out by our NHS, these changes could be implemented universally, without the need for excessive, or indeed any, outsourcing. The technology allows patients to receive prescriptions and laboratory results through their phone, and ensure the patient and all parts of the NHS have all the relevant information and data (which could be safely monitored by clinicians between consultations improving care). A great challenge is information-sharing within the NHS. The use of technology can provide truly holistic and patient-centred care.
Such technological advancements could dramatically improve results here at home, but also offer hope across the world. In Rwanda, for example, the government is developing a community-based health scheme that hopes to be Africa’s first universal primary care service. Patients across the country – from rural villages to those in the centre of Kigali – are increasingly able to have consultations with a doctor and nurse within minutes from their mobile phones. The development has been rapid: instead of waiting decades for sufficient physical infrastructure to emerge, technology has provided invaluable healthcare coverage in a matter of a few years.
In education, whilst everyone (especially relieved parents) advocates the importance of in-person schooling, is there a role for online teaching outside school hours for children that require or could benefit from one-to-one tuition? New technology is changing the way in which students can collaborate with one another on school projects outside school hours. Already, YouTube is providing educational tools for many children at weekends. Online learning can lessen the advantage of wealthier families who pay for private tuition, and give all parents more tools for extra-curricular learning. Technology, if provided universally, can help offer a ‘levelling up’ of educational opportunity.
These are all practical, piecemeal reforms that could be made in the relative short term. But there are wider, more systemic changes that can be built from lessons during the pandemic. The public policy expert and writer Chris Yiu has written extensively on issues such as the use of artificial intelligence in predictive health, transformative technological change for net-zero emissions and re-imagining social insurance with a complete overhaul of the benefits system.
In our justice system, the move to remote, online hearings raises more profound questions as to how we do justice. It presents an opportunity to question our almost exclusively adversarial system, which relies on an ever-growing number of lawyers at often eye-watering expense, meaning access to justice is often only available to the wealthy.
Of course, nobody wants the embracing of technology to mean we all remain at home and engage with one another through a screen. Some court hearings will need to be in person. There is no technology that fully replicates an in-person medical consultation. There is also a real danger of a ‘technology gap’ emerging, between families that can afford effective laptops for their children and those that cannot, or between the quality of justice administered via technology in the High Court opposed to the County Court. Vulnerable patients who are unable to use technology, or do not have the means to access it, must be prioritised in our healthcare system.
Equally, the pandemic has fuelled trends in our economy with disturbing consequences for the labour market, as has been seen in the scandal of standards for Deliveroo, Uber and Amazon workers. We need a strong regulatory framework and trade union presence to ensure workers are protected. But flexible working arrangements and the use of remote technology can be a progressive force – providing for more time with family rather than on commuter train and buses, preventing needless carbon emitting journeys across the world for meetings, encouraging adult learning alongside work. It can increase productivity, making a four-day week, as advocated by Momentum members as a policy priority this week, more achievable. The challenge is stark: to take the best from these technological advancements but ensure all benefit.
In our public sector, the pandemic has taught us lessons about reforms that can improve efficiencies and standards. For Labour, the party to be trusted with our public services, these new trends should be embraced as an accompaniment to a promise of sufficient funding after a decade of austerity. This is the formula to building and renewing our public services after the pandemic.