In times of extreme trouble, society exposes itself. As the government has resolutely failed to get a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic, the last ten months have brought the inequities of Britain—its healthcare, housing, labour, childcare, transport, education, and food provision systems—into the blinding light.
What’s important to remember is that the virus did not create those injustices. Rising pressure on the health service and the economy have exacerbated poverty and associated gaps in health outcomes, but they were both major problems before the first Covid case arrived on British shores.
Nonetheless, the rollout of the vaccine has prompted some to look ahead to a point at which we will be able to ‘get back to normal’. Normal, for most, is a world without social distancing and facemasks. The risk is that it’s also one in which the problems exposed by the virus slip back into the background.
In the first wave of the virus, earners in the UK experienced the biggest immediate income drop since the 1970s, and since then the poor have continued to grow poorer while many billionaires make a killing. But these inequalities are an amplified version of a process that had for years been well underway.
In 2018, two years ahead of the British outbreak, OECD data labelled Britain the most unequal country in Europe. The top 10 percent of households already controlled 45 percent of the national wealth. The same year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation observed that workers in Britain were falling into poverty faster than they were entering employment, and the average income of the poorest in the country fell by 1.6 percent while that of the richest rose by 4.7 percent.
Similar observations can be made about the NHS. News outlets are reporting that the health service is now on its knees, buckling under pressure from a virus allowed to run wild – but a lethal funding squeeze meant the NHS has long been managing a quiet crisis of its own. Outsourcing projects begun under the Thatcher administration proliferated during the New Labour years and those of the coalition, directing increasing amounts of money away from public provision and into the pockets of private bosses. After growth in both budgets and staffing levels during the 2000s, a slowdown in NHS spending began in 2010 as the government began a programme of austerity. Cuts deepened in 2015, with the budget for public health services now £850 million lower than 2015/16 levels; in real terms, the budget has been cut by 25 percent.
It’s therefore not surprising that the government is struggling to staff its Nightingale hospitals. In 2019, there were already 106,000 vacancies across the NHS in England, including over 44,000 vacancies in nursing.
Gaps in health outcomes aren’t only affected by the NHS. In February 2020, the Institute for Health Equity published The Marmot Review 10 Years On, which showed that social, economic, and regional differences in health are large, and have been growing for years; public health cuts regularly hit the most deprived areas harder. In March 2019, the ONS was already reporting a ten-year life expectancy gap between those from the richest and poorest places in the country. It’s this gap which is reflected in the fact that people in those poorest places are more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19.
Covid has also cast light on questions of educational inequality that have existed for years. Before the outbreak, variations in classroom sizes, quality of teaching resources, and access to the internet and technology at home were not often topics of political debate – but we’ve long lived in a country where private schools can afford shiny new hockey pitches while others crowdfund for glue-sticks.
Nowhere has this reality been made more explicit than on the topic of school meals. Given the reporting of the issue, you’d be forgiven for thinking that holiday hunger—the food insecurity faced by poor pupils during school holidays—was a product of coronavirus. But although 700,000 more people have been pushed into poverty this year, three million children in Britain—one of the world’s richest countries—were at risk of holiday hunger in 2018.
The Conservative government continues to resist pressure to extend the free school meals scheme over the February 2021 half term, but this is not a sudden burst of cruelty. It’s standard programming. When we go ‘back to normality’, will we go back to starving children over the break?
The pandemic has taken advantage of the desperate gaps in the country’s safety net to prey on the poorest and most vulnerable. Now, people in low-income jobs are avoiding Covid-19 tests as they can’t afford to self-isolate, worsening the gaps in mortality rates. If Covid has proven anything, it’s that we simply cannot afford to go back to the society which first created those gaps: instead, we must learn from what the past few months have laid bare — and make sure we carry that knowledge into the post-pandemic world.