With the COVID-19 pandemic having exposed and deepened divides across society, Jonathan Walker, North East England Chamber of Commerce policy director, says the Government must now realise its levelling-up ambitions to avoid seeing people and places fall further behind

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the past year wasn’t what most people were expecting when they cast their votes in the 2019 election.

Whatever our views on the Government’s handling of the pandemic, it is fair to say that crises like this are such colossal, once-in-a-lifetime events that any sense of a ‘normal’ political landscape goes out of the window.

You don’t have to know much about politics to know that the chances of a Conservative Government taking ownership of railways and effectively paying the wages of millions of people would have been pretty slim were it not for COVID-19.

So with mass vaccination well underway, and as we take our first tentative steps along the roadmap to re-opening, can we expect politics to return to business as usual? And what might this mean for the North East?

Whatever happens over the coming months, it is clear that the pandemic has exposed and deepened some of the divides in our society.

The labour market has taken a big hit, with national unemployment rising from four per cent to 5.1 per cent in 2020.

Yet in the same period, the rate in the North East rose from 5.4 per cent to 6.5 per cent. The same percentage point rise but building on top of a much worse foundation.

I’ve written and said this many times over the past 12 months, but it is worth repeating.

If ‘levelling-up’ places like the North East was a major priority when the current Government came to power, then its importance has increased tenfold or more during the pandemic.

Levelling-up is in need of a reboot. It must be about opportunity and recovery; not only helping businesses get back on their feet, but also investing in regions to provide long-term growth and to close the appalling gaps that exist in our economy.

So what else should be on the Government’s to-do list?

Well, there’s always Brexit (remember that?).

‘Getting Brexit Done’ was only ever going to be the beginning. Big questions remain unanswered about our relationship with our largest trading partner, while many businesses have been struggling since the turn of the year with increased paperwork, bureaucracy and delays.

Some of these problems are ones of adjustment. Businesses had too little time and information to prepare and are only now able to get to grips with what the trade deal means for them.

However, other problems are baked into the system and will take serious work and diplomatic activity from the Government to resolve.

As well as this, it won’t be long before people expect to see some results from the trade freedom and new ‘Global Britain’ approach that was heralded as one of the major benefits of Brexit.

On the electoral front, there are a busy few months ahead as well.

Local elections have been confirmed in May, providing the first real indicator of how voters will react to the Government’s handling of the pandemic, alongside a mayoral election in the Tees Valley and votes for police and crime commissioners.

Further afield, May will also see elections to the Scottish Parliament, which could have serious ramifications for the independence debate. As we saw in 2014, our region will take a keen interest in these results due to our shared border and significant flows of trade.

And after all of this, thoughts will inevitably turn to the next general election.

Currently set for 2024, this could come sooner if the Prime Minister proceeds with his plan to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and restore the Government’s ability to call elections.

The 2019 election saw our region thrust into the spotlight, with seats across the so-called ‘red wall’ changing hands as the Conservatives secured an 80-seat majority.

How long these switches of allegiance will last will surely depend to some extent on how much voters in those seats feel the Government has listened to them.

So all in all, it’s a busy political year ahead, even if COVID-19 was to disappear tomorrow.

We’ll no doubt too see a fair share of reshuffles, rumour and intrigue in 2021.

For businesses, most of this will be needless distraction from the Government’s main challenge of supporting a fair and sustainable recovery.

If ever there was a time for the whole of Westminster to be focused on the task at hand it is surely now.

Repairing the economic damage caused by COVID-19 will be a long and complicated process.

Doing it while also closing the gaps between regions is likely to be even more complicated.

But if it isn’t done, and if the recovery is uneven, then people and places will be left behind.