Why the State grows in times of crisis

From the NHS to the railways - is the State set to grow post-Covid?

From the NHS to the railways - is the State set to grow post-Covid? - Credit: PA

In the past 15 months the role the government has taken in our lives has grown exponentially. 

Decreeing how much time we could spend outside of the house. Telling us what we must eat if we want to drink alcohol. And, even now, regulating when and where people can go on holiday. 

All of these measures have, so far, been temporary –  with some of the more draconian already coming to an end. 

But now the government has announced a permanent growth in the size of the state. 

From 2023 a new government body will take control of the both the trains and the railways throughout Britain for the first time since the mid-1990s. 

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The new Great British Railways is not, the government wished to make clear, a “re-nationalisation” but instead a “simplification” of the existing railway system. 

The new public body will own and manage rail infrastructure, issue contracts to private firms to run trains, set most fares and timetables and sell tickets. 

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It will also remove the need to adjudicate whose fault it is when a train is delayed, a job which 400 people are currently employed to do. 

According to government papers this will cut out such arguments as whether a pheasant is a small or a large bird. Seriously.

The answer to this existential question, after all, decides whether the delay was Network Rail’s fault (large bird) or the train operators’ fault (small bird). 

The roots of this decision can be seen in the government’s experience over the past 14 months.  After all, being encumbered by red tape while battling a deadly crisis cannot make the job any easier. 

But maybe there is also something about a crisis that galvanises politicians into making big changes in their aftermath. 
The last, and greatest, crisis the UK faced was the Second World War. 

After six long years of war –  which did not always have unfaltering public support –  people wanted reassurance that life on the other side would be better. 

To that end the National Health Service came into existence, in a bid to tackle the ‘five giant evils’ identified as plaguing life in Britain. 

Now, more than 70 years on most of us could not quite imagine life without the NHS. 

During both periods of crisis, the state –  coincidentally both times under Conservative governments –  has taken control of more and more of our lives. 

For the most part, people have accepted this temporary lack of freedom and gone about their lives as best they can.  

But perhaps temporarily dipping our toes into the waters of a bigger state makes the thought of being permanently immersed in them more palatable. 

People will, obviously, want some proof that the government is better placed to take care of business than the private sector or other bodies. That is not something the government has continually given us throughout the pandemic. 

The debacle of track and trace early on in the pandemic and the slow-motion decision to close the country’s borders against the spread of new variants, have not filled people with hope. 

However, since December 8 the rollout of the Covid vaccine has been nothing short of miraculous. 

Some might point out that this rollout was not down to central government alone. The NHS must take a huge amount of the credit for this marvel. 

The same criticism can be levelled of track and trace. At first, in its centralised form, the success rates were poor. It was not until more localised teams stepped in that the scheme started to hit its straps. 

Indeed, in November a House of Lords committee criticised the government’s response to Covid-19 for being “overcentralised, poorly coordinated, and poorly communicated”.  

So, from 2023 maybe it does not matter if the state has “re-nationalised” or merely “simplified” the railways. What does matter, like in the late-1940s, is that life gets better for people here in the East.

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