COVID-19 – A year of the ‘new normal’

30 March 2021 - by Adam Newton

If a week is a long time in politics, a year must seem like a lifetime, and for many of us the past year has been life-changing.

On 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister’s address from 10 Downing Street began with the stark reality that ‘coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone.’ The address saw the introduction of the first UK-wide lockdown with the Executive also immediately moving to implement restrictions. The Republic of Ireland had taken the decision to introduce their lockdown on 12 March, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar making the announcement during his visit to the United States for St. Patrick’s Day.

One year on, many new terms such as furlough, lockdown, R number and ‘you’re on mute’ have entered the public discourse and become reference points for how we have collectively charted the course of the pandemic.

And while the world has changed, politics has continued to operate.

While it took some time to get moving, politics went digital, with Westminster introducing online platforms to reduce the amount of travel for its 650 MPs. Not to be left behind, the Assembly also took the step to move committees online, and after a few hiccups with technology, members have gotten to grips with the new digital world. Earlier this year, the Assembly Commission also agreed to allow Plenary sessions to be held virtually.

After a period of pandemic response and the taking forward of necessary pieces of legislation such as the Budget, together with management of the end of the transition period, the past few months have seen attention starting to turn towards recovery.

The recent Programme for Government consultation will set the priorities for the Executive in the next mandate and beyond, while there has been the launch of a range of consultations across Departments on New Decade New Approach commitments and other policy initiatives, with more set to be introduced in the coming months. There has also been a recent push to introduce legislation to the Assembly, which is normal protocol for the final year of a mandate as Ministers seek to meet their legislative programme.

But how much of this change is likely to remain in the long-term? Will we see an increase in working from home? Will online events become the norm? Will we see politics continue to operate both online and in person?

Certainly the move to online committee sessions has enabled a range of witnesses to attend without having to be there in person, increasing the both the depth and quality of committee scrutiny. All Party Groups have also moved digital, with greater interest and availability of witnesses and observers to be able to attend without having to travel. Most recently we have seen the Alliance Party hold their annual conference online, which may be the first of more to come.

With the vaccine roll out progressing at speed, the return to some form of normality or a ‘new normal’ is almost certain to embrace some of this change from the past 12 months.