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Public understanding of the risks posed by COVID-19 understandably has focused squarely on health and mortality. As government officials throughout the UK during the first few months of the crisis offered daily hospitalization and death counts, minds inevitably concentrated on the medical risks of COVID-19. Yet the subject of this book is the social costs that will also come in the wake of the pandemic: problems of social disadvantage and suffering that will be less visible – perhaps less compelling in the public imagination – than the primary health impacts. How might law matter to such social problems? What role can law play in the alleviation of this social suffering?

When answering such questions, it is tempting to frame the discussion purely in terms of what government, Parliament or the courts might do to alleviate suffering. The image of law here is one where it has a formal status: enacted through Parliament, interpreted and developed in the courts, and enforced by administration. Equally, the understanding of law’s relationship to society is primarily a ‘top-down’ instrumental one: law as a tool of governance to bring about change in society. There is much to commend this way of thinking about law and society. It captures a great deal of what lawyers and social scientists study when exploring law’s potential to improve society and the actual impact of law on society. However, to understand the role of law in the response to social suffering fully, we must make two basic adjustments to this familiar way of thinking about law in society.

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