The lockdown is starting to lift, but from where things stand the “new normal” is looking pretty tough. It’s not normal to teach our kids in schools where there’s a ban on playing together. It’s not normal for every shop to snake a socially distanced queue half a mile down the high street. It’s not normal for companies to set up two-metre cordons around desks and one-way systems in their offices.
Daily life will be massively cumbersome, with many organisations struggling to find a viable way to operate. Or worse still, complex and impractical rules around social distancing will crumble on contact with reality. Confusion will multiply, and public confidence will continue to fall.
For some, however, it’ll be a different story. By making use of commercially available tools and technology, it’s already possible to screen people for Covid-19 and to restrict access to buildings accordingly. There’s already talk of some businesses and independent schools developing their own private testing regimes, so that when they re-open people on the inside can go back to how things were before Covid-19.
This risks driving a stark new technological divide through society. And unless the government acts quickly, the immense effort that people have put into complying with the lockdown could very easily tip over into widespread resentment. After all, it’s been hard for everyone – so why shouldn’t the benefits of opening up again be shared as well?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s still time for the government to get a grip on delivering a comprehensive containment infrastructure. If it did, then a pretty close approximation of life before Covid-19 would be within reach for everyone. This comes down to a handful of things: regular, mass testing; protective measures like masks, shields and hand washing; effective contact tracing; and a widely used digital ID.
There would be more friction for sure: on the way into a close-proximity environment – offices, schools, airports and other places – there would be new checks. Either you’d use a digital pass on your phone to prove you’ve had an antibody test that came back positive (and are thus presumed immune, at least in the short term). Or you’d be screened for symptoms, have your temperature checked and take an on-the-spot antigen test (to keep out people currently carrying the disease) and be issued a temporary digital pass for the rest of the day.
Everyone would still wash their hands more than they used to, buildings would be cleaned more often, and we’d all participate in a functioning contact tracing scheme.
This wouldn’t be perfect, but in many cases it would be good enough to create a protective “safe zone” inside which things could be relatively normal again.
The organisations that can afford to put these arrangements in place are already preparing to do so. The big banks, law firms and consultancies are desperate to get staff back into their offices, and will be the first customers for a new wave of testing kits, checkpoints and digital credentials, with proprietary ID apps loaded onto employees’ phones. Schools with the necessary resources will take this option rather than compromise the quality of the education they provide.
The only way to extend these sorts of benefits to everyone is for the government to provide the digital identity platform on which the rest of a universal system would be built. Common standards so that risks and restrictions are managed consistently; interoperability so that people only have to carry one digital ID app on their phone; and legislation to ensure people’s privacy is protected and the new rules are fair and proportionate.
This will let us open as much as possible, as safely as possible, for as many people as possible.
Until the government recognises this, lifting the lockdown without a strategy means a return to normality for the fortunate few but a completely different “new normal” for everyone else. To paraphrase William Gibson: the post-Covid-19 future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.