Show caption ‘The post-pandemic cost of living crisis is only likely to be deepened by the fallout from Russian aggression in Europe.’ Lidl store in east London. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images Opinion Time now to look at ourselves as a nation and take stock: Covid has changed Britain Gaby Hinsliff The UK is still a calmer place than it may appear, but the pandemic has fuelled cynicism and resentment Fri 25 Feb 2022 11.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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When the pandemic started, most of us naively assumed it would have an end: if not a formal declaration of victory over Covid-19, with pubs running dry and strangers kissing in the street, then at the very least surely a sense of relief. We would know it was over, and could then make sense of how this collective near-death experience had changed us as a country.
Unfortunately, life is never quite that neat. This week’s scrapping of England’s last remaining Covid restrictions is a choice that vaccines, antivirals and a milder Omicron variant have, arguably, allowed us to make, although it’s by no means clear that future variants will be so obliging. But the virus isn’t over, and we’re some way from making sense of anything.
A much-loved face missing at dinner; an emptiness that cannot be filled. The changes wreaked by these extraordinary past two years are painfully obvious to the bereaved, those who lost livelihoods in lockdown and medical staff who saw things they won’t forget. Many parents also sense something different in their children, from the shyness of toddlers reared in lockdown to the social awkwardness of teens who spent too long interacting mainly through their phones. And too many formerly active older people are now visibly scared to go out, or hobbled by chronic illness that worsened during lockdown. But when the Pew Research thinktank asked ordinary Americans to explain in their own words how Covid had changed them last spring, what came back was a confusing mishmash.
Some had positively enjoyed hunkering down at home, while others felt frustrated and lonely. Some had saved money but others piled up debt. Some loved home working and were gleefully never returning to the office, while others never left. Almost nine in 10 people described at least one change for the worse in their lives and three-quarters an unexpected upside, but most experienced both at once. The overall pattern was that there wasn’t really a pattern; the pandemic, researchers concluded, had “affected Americans’ lives in a variety of ways, of which there is no ‘typical’ experience”. But the one thing almost everyone felt was that society had gone downhill, with responses describing how Covid brought the best out in people so rare they couldn’t be reliably measured.
While it’s natural to imagine that seismic social change must follow epoch-defining events, all the most dramatic predictions have so far been wrong. Employment did not collapse, triggering another Great Depression. People didn’t riot in the streets over being told to stay home. But nor did we “build back better”, constructing a greener and fairer future from the ashes. An analysis of the post-lockdown mood in Britain published this week by the authoritative social research body NatCen concludes bluntly that it “cannot be said that the pandemic has left a legacy of a public that is looking more intently to government to create a more equal society”. Support for raising taxes to spend more on health or education has fallen slightly, with no surge of enthusiasm for redistribution from rich to poor. In times of threat and hardship, people typically feel more inclined to hang on to every penny they’ve got. But if there has been no “great reset” moment, NatCen did identify a gentle acceleration of shifts that have quietly been under way for years.
Back in 2010, the year they voted in the austerity government of David Cameron, 56% of Britons agreed that “if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet”. By last summer, that was 36%. People aren’t blind to their neighbours’ struggles. Hostility to immigration has faded too, with 53% now agreeing it’s good for the economy and 49% that it’s enriched Britain culturally – up from a miserly 21% and 26% respectively a decade ago. Focus groups run by More in Common (which campaigns for social cohesion) found an enduring warmth towards NHS staff, supermarket workers, delivery drivers and people who got vaccinated to protect others. There is a better country in here somewhere trying to get out, but it needed moral leadership from a government that has repeatedly provided the reverse. (A separate study from King’s College London this week finds public trust collapsing over the past year; by the beginning of December, 62% weren’t sure they could believe what their government said.) And the angels of our better natures are struggling against the only other defining post-pandemic trend: a widespread sense of cynicism, even gloom.
Even before police began investigating lockdown-busting parties at No 10, NatCen found two-thirds of Britons thought there was “one law for the rich and another for the poor”. More in Common found only 26% of Britons agreeing last November that “in this country we look after each other”, down from 46% in the summer of 2020; most now think the national mood is “everyone for themselves”. More Britons also now believe society is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, the kind of pervasive hopelessness that fuels populism. If the past two years were sometimes frightening, it’s the next five that scare me.
The lesson of the banking crash – when dramatic predictions of cashpoints running dry and society descending into anarchy also proved thankfully unfounded – is to beware the aftermath, not just the immediate crisis. It was the ensuing decade of spending cuts, stagnating wages and soaring assets that really hurt, breeding resentment, division and a politics of extremes. The looming post-pandemic cost of living crisis, which is only likely to be deepened by the fallout from Russian aggression in Europe, looks like following a worryingly familiar path.
Britain is still a calmer and more pragmatic country than it sometimes looks. But while the rabble of anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and far-right agitators brought on to the streets by Covid remains a tiny minority, it’s a warning sign of something bubbling under the surface, which will find new grievances to latch on to now that restrictions have been lifted. The earthquake may be over; the aftershock, unfortunately, has still to begin.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist