What do governments need to consider as they implement transition plans?

Cross-Country Analysis

What do governments need to consider as they implement transition plans?

Creating a strategic plan to manage coronavirus is only part of the battle. A number of mediating factors govern the extent to which strategic plans will actually be effective. 

According to the COVID-19 Health System Response Monitor the extent to which other social policies are already being used to support public health objectives and economic sustainability varies. 

Many people are likely to stay home even as lockdowns are lifted

Treating coronavirus strategic planning as a two-way street, while necessary, is likely to be both economically disruptive and politically divisive. Governments should clearly acknowledge now they might need to re-impose restrictive public health measures in order to govern expectations over the coming months. Across the EU, many people will continue to work from home even as restrictions are eased. Vulnerable and older individuals will remain physically isolated, and they can make up a majority of the population in some countries. Governments should also consider automating any and all measures that can provide greater certainty to businesses and individuals, e.g., precise automatic stabilizers targeted to the nature of the COVID-19 crisis that kick in immediately when restrictions are tightened. Payroll subsidies, short-time work schemes (Kurzarbeit), and enhanced unemployment benefits can all be made automatic, which would ease life in the shadow of potential repeated closures. 

The difficulty of the policy challenge should not be underestimated. Governments are identifying and trying to manage the risks of reopening in different ways. In most cases they are not coordinating plans with each other, which means that potential learning is diminished and the risk of re-introduction or new surges increases. The relationship between social policy and the chance that restrictions will be re-imposed is unclear and increases the risk to business and consumer demand, since planning will be very difficult with the threat of repeated lockdowns. Governments might consider not just clearly communicating that reopening is a two way street, but also developing plans to mitigate the economic effects of any reintroduction of restrictions. 

Clear communication of what is allowed and what is not

First, governments need the ability to communicate variations in restrictions clearly and effectively to officials at all levels and the public as well as those involved in compliance and capacity planning e.g., the police, the health system and armed forces. It is very easy to undermine the credibility of both scientific rationales and enforcement efforts if there is a lack of clarity and coherence. 

Social policies outside the health sector play an important role

Second, policies and resources that support businesses and social policies that mitigate the effects of disruption need to be in place and be easy to access. A good policy or program will not be effective if the intended recipients cannot register their interest or enroll in order to obtain benefits. Governments are therefore supporting reopening through social policies. The Danish government has defined COVID-19 as a work-related injury that qualifies for government compensation. The French state is providing short-term unemployment insurance. French employees, whose contract is suspended for the duration of the pandemic, receive compensation paid by their employer known as “partial unemployment” (about 84% of net earnings). The German Education Ministry will provide loans for students experiencing financial difficulty due to the pandemic. The Austrian Parliament has enacted a series of laws to strengthen social benefits for people financially affected by the crisis (around 1% of the population falls under the new definition of “risk groups” entitled to additional assistance).

Transitions are likely to be more successful where people trust their government

In addition, trust in government is likely to govern the effectiveness of strategic planning. The willingness of individuals to go back to work, send their children to school and comply with contact tracing and other personal data requests is likely to be related to their overall level of trust in government and their prior experiences with government programs. Trust in government varies widely across Europe, but actions taken during the opening phase can build trust. In Austria, public discontent with the lockdown doubled over the past month according to a recent poll, with 21% of respondents now finding that the current measures are “exaggerated”. In principle, transparency, effective public health communication and broad political agreement on strategies will all contribute to trust.

Holly Jarman, Sarah Rozenblum, Scott L. Greer, Matthias Wismar