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Three truths about public services laid bare by Covid-19

At times of crisis, we find out what we are made of. Over the last six weeks, we have learnt that our country and our economy is built around public services.

It is thanks to care assistants, nurses, bin men, doctors, paramedics, bus drivers and social workers, alongside supermarket staff, delivery drivers and worker in other critical industries, that the country remains functioning. And behind all these key workers is an army of administrators, also vital for keeping the show on the road.

As the pandemic has developed, the response has highlighted three truths about public services that often get overlooked.

First, public services doesn’t stop at the work of councils, the NHS and other government bodies – they include the wider social economy too.

The work of the third sector – charities, voluntary associations and social enterprises – is critical to resilient and strong communities.

This crisis has seen thousands of these organisations mobilise, and a flood of volunteering through local food banks, the GoodSAM app and the establishment of neighbourhood Mutual Aid organisations. More often than not these organisation are the first line of response, taking pressure off hospitals and social care, feeding families those income has dried up, and providing much-needed friendship and support.

As we stand on our doorsteps and applaud every Thursday, we should remember that the NHS was formed from the incorporation of ‘voluntary hospitals’ into a state-led health system, and remains a mixed economy of organisations. As the NCVO’s Karl Wilding points out, any distinction between the NHS and charity is a therefore ‘false dichotomy’.

Second, the public sector no longer deserves to be caricatured as inflexible and unadaptable. In responding to crisis, local councils and the NHS have all proved willing and able to react rapidly to events.

NHS Nightingale in East London was established and kitted out in nine days, providing a vital overflow to ensure London hospitals were not overwhelmed and a resource that may yet have its hardest days ahead of it.

Local councils have responded in an equally spirited way, coordinating and leading the response locally, whilst maintaining their core business to protect the most vulnerable, collect the bins and keeping us safe in our homes. They will emerge as the unsung heroes of Covid-19.

Third, public services are built on human judgments and trade-offs.

Who should get support? How much support should I give? When is the right time to stop giving support? These are questions that face care professionals, clinicians, and social workers every day, and on which futures hang in the balance.

Trade-offs will become painfully obvious for us all when coming out of the crisis. Balancing the economic consequences of lock-down with the impact of the virus itself will inevitably mean tough choices. These decisions may end up being harder than those made when managing the virus at its peak. We should give decision-makers our understanding as well as our scrutiny when the time comes.

It is still too early to say what sort of public services will emerge from this crisis, but we can be certain that our outlook will be changed forever. Those of us working from home shouldn’t forget that, above all, the response to Covid-19 is dependent on front-line staff making sacrifices for the common good. It is likely we will all be asked to do something similar in the months and years to come.

To hear more about Mutual Venture’s work with local authorities and how we might help you, contact john@mutualventures.co.uk.

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