In an attempt to get the virus under control, England will undergo a strict set of lockdown measures, and schools and colleges have switched largely to remote learning from today. While the government has promised support for a second lockdown, many who need it most keep falling through the cracks.
Lockdown is the right decision just now for public health and for the economy in the long-term. But we know from previous lockdowns that the policies accompanying them can amplify existing inequalities, from households struggling to get by on brittle social security devastated by a decade of austerity, to those facing the frightening prospect of rent arrears.
We have experienced lockdown before, and we know who is set to be hit hardest. Simply put, the government’s current support package is insufficient. As we enter a new lockdown, we need a comprehensive set of policies rooted in alleviating economic anxiety and pressure on people, households and communities.
While there is a range of urgent measures that need to be part of any justice-led support package, here are three policies areas that are vital as we enter a new nation-wide lockdown.
Guaranteeing Digital Access
One of the key announcements in Johnson’s speech yesterday was that, aside from some vulnerable children and children of key workers, schools would close, following sustained pressure from the National Education Union. “Parents whose children were in school today,” the Prime Minister noted, “may reasonably ask why we did not take this decision sooner.” Indeed.
Among the issues generated by school closures is the pervasive digital divide. The UK is ranked 35th out of 37 countries assessed by the OECD for the proportion of fibre connections in its total fixed broadband infrastructure, and only 13% of households have a full-fibre connection.
While the notion of full-fibre access for all was largely used as a point of mockery in the 2019 General Election, the acute digital divide in access and quality of connection witnessed as millions now work and study from home has reiterated the need for digital access for all. We need a holistic, mission-based approach to support our school systems, and the school closures have made this all the more urgent.
New Rights and Protections for Workers
One of the most immediate actions the UK Government could take, which would extend across the UK, is to raise and expand statutory sick pay. As highlighted by the Trades Union Congress, weekly statutory sick pay is only £96, meaning that “if the average worker is off work sick for a week, they lose around 80 per cent of their usual earnings.”
There is an urgent need to ensure that people can isolate safely, without falling into debt or feeling forced to work, thus endangering others, simply to make ends meet. As Sarah O’Connor notes in the Financial Times, the UK has the lowest mandatory sick pay for those isolating with Covid-19 in the OECD as a proportion of the average worker’s earnings.
For almost 2 million low-paid workers earning under £120 a week, there is no entitlement to sick pay at all. The exclusion of some from support schemes has been highlighted by the ExcludedUK, with around 3 million taxpayers who have fallen through the cracks and left without meaningful support.
Even before the pandemic, 14 million people in Britain were living in poverty – and a majority of those had at least one person working in their household. The government’s furlough scheme to date has allowed low-paid workers to receive only 80% of their wage, even when this falls below the minimum wage level. In order to ensure this pandemic doesn’t lead to an even greater increase in poverty, there must be a furlough floor of at least the minimum wage.
More broadly, the scale of exploitation, lay-offs and health and safety violations witnessed throughout the pandemic has exposed deep failings in our labour market, which has been made precarious by design. This exposure has stressed the need for a new deal for workers; one that, at a minimum, ends zero-hour contracts, provides harassment-free workplaces, upholds stronger family-friendly working environments, matches the minimum wage with a real Living Wage for all, eradicates pay gaps based on gender, race and disability, and recognises both the social and economic benefits of a four-day week.
Action to Protect Households
Lockdown has generated a broader conversation around the resource capacity of households, bringing about fresh questions around the inadequacy of financial support for households at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic, and leading to demands from an increase to Universal Credit, to scrapping the punitive two-child cap, support for single-parent families and carers – paid and unpaid – and renewed calls for a universal basic income.
Given the scale of the crisis, we need to mobilise a recovery strategy akin to post-war reconstruction, investing in key infrastructures, from healthcare to social security and housing, recognising the role of the state as central to this, as part of a broader mission to redistribute wealth and power throughout our economy and society. A new social contract must include all, which means ending the hostile environment.
Housing insecurity is endemic and worsened dramatically by the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis. While urgent action is needed here and now, from rent freezes to extending eviction bans, the insecurity baked into our current housing market should generate wider action to secure safe homes for all, from national retrofitting and housebuilding programmes to widespread rent controls.
A Justice-Led Recovery Strategy
We have a lot to learn from the mistakes of the last lockdown. Our ability to mitigate Covid-19 was impeded by key policy failures, like outsourcing test, track and trace, and ‘Eat out to Help out’, which fuelled Covid-19 infections. Crucially, the support package was insufficient; its failings often disproportionately adversely impacting those that needed it most. This time around, the government needs to accompany lockdown with a comprehensive set of measures to safeguard incomes and alleviate economic anxiety.
While our immediate challenge is to guarantee a fair and safe lockdown for all, tomorrow’s challenge is to fight for a transformative recovery. Instead of embarking on yet another re-organisation of the economy embedded in a mantra of privatising services, deregulation and austerity under the guise of ‘balancing the books’, we should initiate the largest green stimulus package possible, rooted in public ownership, to tackle the twin crises climate and economic injustice to build a future in which we can all flourish.