It has become clear that COVID-19, far from being a leveller, has disproportionately impacted certain demographics. This notion of fairness - which we have been exploring over the past 18 months through our Future of Government programme - has never been more important. As the immediate crisis response period passes, we hosted Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, Rt Hon Alan Milburn and business and public sector leaders to discuss how Wales can recover and rebuild to become a better, fairer country.
The focus on fairness resonated with attendees. The Wellbeing of Future Generations act was highlighted as a strong, and internationally unique, decision-making lens that ensures a focus on creating equality of outcome and a fairer Wales. But as we explore below, there are more opportunities to support an inclusive Welsh recovery.
While the crisis period has been an intensely challenging time, there was a sense from everyone around the virtual table that we shouldn’t lose the positive and transformative ways of working that emerged during the crisis. Across the business, public sector and universities represented, people shared their experiences of the agile, collaborative ways of working that emerged through the crisis, from moving all university teaching online, to standing up new council services in 24 hours and healthcare going digital.
For many, both in the public sector and private, the pandemic has brought purpose to the fore. People were reminded about why they came into politics, public sector organisations reconnected with the people and places they represent, and businesses reassessed their social purpose. As the immediate crisis subsides, the challenge is to seize the moment and harness the ambition, enthusiasm and problem-solving entrepreneurial spirit that was unleashed before people retreat into the familiar sense order.
The theme of building on learnings from the crisis extended to relationships with the public. Attendees spoke of the extraordinary sense of social solidarity among Welsh people, the very visible mobilisation of community efforts in the response to the crisis and the strong sense of trust between local public services and citizens and communities.
We saw this in our pre-COVID-19 Future of Government research too. 76% of the people we surveyed in Wales said they wanted to engage with local decision-making, although there was a divide between people living in urban and rural areas.
There is also a new expectation from the public about the role of government and the pace and scale at which it can address big challenges, whether that be creating capacity in the NHS or tackling unemployment. Continuing to engage citizens and empower communities through the recovery will be key.
The scale of the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 is only just beginning, with the ending of Government support schemes likely to expose the fragility of the labour market. If previous recessions are anything to go by, it is people on low incomes and younger generations that will suffer the most and there is an onus on all of us to mitigate the worst impacts of recession and ensure a fair recovery.
There was recognition that skills - and digital skills in particular - would be critical to the recovery, with many businesses accelerating their digital transformation plans rather than slowing them down. Our Future of Government research highlighted that many younger Welsh people were already expecting their job to be automated, indicating a readiness for change that Wales can build on. However, while many may be comfortable with working from home, this is not universal. PwC research shows the stark relationship between those who can work from home and income. Equipping people to enable them to operate in new ways means investing in both skills and education but also technology infrastructure.
There is no question that the COVID-19 experience has accelerated a move to much more collaborative working both across the public sector and between public and private. And that collaborative partnership working and shared understanding will be just as critical to shaping the recovery as it has been through the crisis. We can have much greater impact when we work together and I know PwC is ready to play its part in shaping the fairer Wales that we all aspire to.
“While there are clearly substantial challenges ahead as we deal with living with COVID-19 and its economic repercussions, there are also reasons to be optimistic when we look at the opportunities emerging to shape an inclusive and fair recovery for the people and places of Wales.”