Simon is in his fifties. He is in constant pain and has been for years. He can walk, but only a few hundred yards, and slowly. On his front door is a handwritten sign. In black marker pen, it reads: “I want to live a long life. Wash your hands. Stay away from me if you are ill. I want to stay alive.” He hasn’t left his house in nearly three months.
I met Simon through the NHS Responder app. I have picked up medicine for him from the hospital, and posted a parcel. Tiny gestures, but they helped me feel useful. I hope they made him feel safer.
Simon’s front door is about a hundred paces from mine. But while my life got more crowded in lockdown, Simon’s got more lonely. I felt powerless. He felt like a burden. While I painted rainbows for our windows with my children, Simon’s markers were used in fear, scoring letters on paper like a talisman to shield his home.
Slowly, over the next year or years, our country will recover from this crisis. We’ll go back to school. Pubs will open again. We’ll abandon the masks and smile at strangers again. But there’s no going back to normal – not for me, for Simon, or for millions of citizens whose lives or livelihoods have been irrevocably changed.
Some changes – like mask wearing and hand gel everywhere – will only last until there is a vaccine, or the disease has been fully controlled through track and trace. But other changes could last forever. Many of our high streets will never fully reopen. Many pubs and theatres will go to the wall. Many businesses will switch to home working as the norm – which will change our town centres and office parks, but may be welcomed by many who hate commuting or want a better work life balance.
Not all the changes Coronavirus has brought are bad. Millions of new community groups and neighbourhood friendships have been established. Many GPs have used online appointments for the first time, which can be easier for some patients. More people will now walk or cycle to work, keeping themselves healthier and reducing pollution.
That’s why we mustn’t sit back and let this avalanche of change just happen. We can’t let devastation settle on people and places that were already struggling. We can’t let the good slip away. We need to have a national conversation about the future we want to come out of this, and how we can work together to secure it.
Already there are teams in government making plans for our future, and I’m sure they’re doing their best to sift through the evidence. But it won’t be enough. This crisis has been so much bigger than anything any of us have lived through before. It has affected every single person. And at the best of times, Westminster and Whitehall are bad at understanding the diversity of human experience. We can’t let this small group of experts and policy people decide things behind closed doors. That might give someone like me a chance to be heard. But it would leave Simon, and millions like him, locked out.
We have to bring the voices and stories of our citizens to the politicians, and let those voices set the agenda for our future.
The last three years have seen the country at war with itself about Brexit. We’ve shouted and screamed and hurled abuse. We can’t do that again over this. Already the fight about the reopening of schools has threatened to reignite the culture war. The country’s future after Covid cannot be settled in the trenches. It has to be an open, reasonable, debate.
We need a national conversation, unlike any we’ve had before, that brings people together to share their stories, in all their diversity. And then discuss and deliberate about the choices we now face. Working with a group of political and non-political leaders, that’s the conversation I’m now convening at Demos. We’re a think tank but we have a unique approach: instead of working mostly with experts, we start by involving citizens. I think that approach is more important than ever, so this project belongs to the people, not to us. Together we will figure out what the nation thinks should happen next.
Do we welcome the tech and home working revolution? Should we redesign our welfare system? How do we get millions back to work? Can we keep air pollution down even as we restart the economy? Is it still possible to rebalance between North and South, like the government promised? Should we be paying front line NHS staff or care workers more? Should we redesign our economy so we’re less dependent on foreign supply chains and international trade? How do we pay for the costs Covid-19 has inflicted on us? And when?
Over the next six months, we aim to bring up to a million people into the debate about life after Covid-19, to answer these questions, and pose their own. Then we decide together how we can renew what normal should look like – when we get back to it.
We’re starting by gathering stories and ideas from the public on an open platform. We’ll interview ordinary people and experts alike, and share every one of those interviews publicly to get feedback and responses. And then we’ll start to test those ideas and suggestions with the community, using a set of digital democracy tools we’ve developed called the Public Participation Lab.
We want to hear your story and your ideas, no matter who you are, and no matter what your experience of Covid-19 has been. This isn’t open to just one side or the other. It’s not about Brexit or party politics, it’s about you. We believe this can be the largest conversation ever about Britain’s future. Simon is going to join in. Will you?
Join the conversation here.