Will communities continue to support each other despite inequalities?

August 4, 2020

Paul Corrigan, CBE, Former Director of Strategy and Commissioning for NHS London

The Covid-19 crisis has frightened us all. For some day by day anxiety is replaced by week by week depression about not being able to live our lives as we need. This is very tough.

And yet and yet, nearly every day there are high points of experience that we can draw from the Covid crisis. Every day we are seeing or hearing unexpected kindnesses. Individuals and groups have come together to help others- with food, a chat and support.

I live in London (a city of very many different communities) and what is particularly striking, as it is in most cities, is how this kindness has cut across and between the different communities. It’s true there is a predisposition to ‘look after people like us’ but there is clearly a bigger instinct to look after our neighbours as well because – well they are our neighbours. The definition of community has moved from people like us to people.

Next door strangers

More people are moved by this wider community spirit than I have ever seen.

Most communities are network of localities – real neighbours because they are next door. What is new in many places is that many of the people in these localities didn’t know each other at all. What has happened is much more the kindness of strangers giving and receiving from each other, than simply helping people that we know.

Some people with a passion, some time and skill and a resource recognise that, during this crisis, they can contribute something that people actually need. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the person who has the need, what is important is meeting that need. More of this is happening now because the crisis is a common one that is touching everyone. If you have a number of vulnerable people in your locality they are likely to need food because they can’t get out. The offering and the accepting is covered by the national experience of the Covid-19 crisis. We are helping each other to get through a common threat.

Community activity

But many of the people who are getting help now, needed it before this crisis. The giving and the accepting was more awkward then because there wasn’t a common threat. The need was there because of specific experiences rather than common ones.

And that changed the nature of both the giving and the receiving. If you knock on every door in a street and say do you need some food because of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s different from only knocking on the door of poorer people before the crisis. So there is a commonality about the community activity during the Covid-19 crisis that will be different after the crisis (if there is an after). If we want that community activity to continue after the Covid crisis is over, we will need some other national commonality to work within.

No going back?

There are two sets of very human feelings about ‘after the crisis’. The first is, “please lets just get back to normal”. Normal was meeting as a whole family; going for a drink and a meal; planning and going on a holiday; going in a group down the shops. People really want to get back to that normal.

The second is never again. This crisis has demonstrated how fragile so many aspects of our society are. Too many people really need food banks. Too many people are only two weekly pay cheques away from disaster. Too many people are lonely. Too many children have no opportunity to learn at home. Too many people are ill. Too many key workers are paid too little. Too many migrants who we depend on are treated as aliens. We can’t go back and ignore what we have learnt.

These really are two different drivers. If we go back to where we were (what a relief to not be afraid) then we go back to where we all were. But will people, having come through all this anxiety, really want to spend the next decade creating a new future with less of the inequality we have uncovered?

My point is that there is no inevitability either way. We could just go back; Or we could learn from the painful lessons and make a different future.


Paul Corrigan gained his first degree in social policy from the LSE in 1969, his PhD at Durham in 1974 and has been appointed visiting professor of public policy at the University of North London since 1995.

For the first 12 years of his working life he taught at Warwick University and the Polytechnic of North London. In 1985 he left academic life and for the next 12 years he worked in local government – mainly in London but also as a member of staff in the local government unit of the Labour party.

In 1997 he started to work for himself as a local government consultant working on issues of modernisation and in 1999 worked for the Office for Public Management. From 2001 he worked for the Labour government as Special Advisor on Health, leading the development of Foundation Trust Hospitals and pioneering the ‘choice’ agenda.

Paul is currently engaged across the NHS playing a leading role in a number of reform and transformation programmes. He is also one of the UK’s leading opinion formers on healthcare and regularly contributes to the national debate in this space.

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