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Tue 31 March 2020
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Stephen Colegrave considers those who are vulnerable to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak and how important it is for the Government to support them.

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It is a relief that the Government finally seems to have recognised the seriousness of the Coronavirus crisis. It has have started to say the right things, even if the onus seems to be on members of the public to decide whether to change their lives based on its somewhat vague recommendations.

But there are still concerns that the lives of many ordinary people will suffer and the Government will do little to help them.

In the midst of a public health crisis which is likely to lead to a financial crisis, minimising the spread and the personal economic impact of the virus will be the key to managing both. Saving people both in terms of their health and financial survival are interlinked and arguably more important than simply making sure that businesses can survive and that the stock market doesn’t crash.

The majority of the Government’s concern and recommendations seems to be for middle-class people, not for those who are less fortunate. Social distancing and self-isolation is relatively easy if you don’t need to use public transport; work in a consultancy or the media, creative or financial industry which enable you to continue your job at home; or if you or your family have enough savings to tide you over if the worst happens.

But what about those who don’t have these options?


The Wrong Incentives

Many people who work in areas most at risk, such as in residential, care homes and social care, are only paid the minimum wage.

If they have symptoms of the Coronavirus – which should mean they self-isolate for seven days – the financial pressure on them could be to keep working as they are unlikely to have savings and would not be able to live on the £94.25 legal minimum statutory sick pay they would receive a week. Even to qualify for this, they must have earned a minimum of £118 per week in the past eight weeks. The UK has the lowest sick pay rates in Europe, with only 20% of average salaries covered, and millions don’t earn enough to receive it.

Other European governments are making sure that people don’t have to risk their health and that of other people because of financial concerns. Why isn’t the UK Government doing the same?

People working in the gig economy – which now accounts for 4.7 million workers or 15% of Britain’s workforce – are in close proximity with their customers all the time. If these people receive Universal Credit because of their existing low incomes and then have to stop working due to the Coronavirus, it will take five weeks for their change in circumstances to be recognised and their benefit payment increased.

At the same time, foodbanks are running out of supplies as people who normally donate are stock-piling instead.

There are also six million self-employed people in the UK, 96% of whom do not have income protection and 93% of whom lack critical or health cover. Considering that the majority have £500 or less in savings, the pressure to keep working even if they feel unwell is immense.

Among the other concerns around our healthcare workers and the Coronavirus, many of the 1.3 million NHS staff are on low wages and have little money saved. If a member of their family has symptoms, they will need to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Compare this to France where healthcare workers are being placed in hotels, so that they are not at risk from family members, and being provided with taxis to work to lower their exposure to the virus on public transport.


Vulnerability

More worrying are vulnerable members of society such as the homeless and those sleeping rough. With testing for the Coronavirus generally seeming to be lacking in the UK, there is no way to determine whether hostels might be hotspots for spreading COVID-19.

“The risks of the virus reaching our shelters is increasing in likelihood by the day,” Lucy Abraham, chief operating officer at Glass Door, which runs England’s largest network of winter night shelters, has said.

Although the Government has said that prisoners with Coronavirus symptoms will be kept in isolation, such a claim is arguably dubious – given that prisons in England and Wales have been overcrowded for years, that they are home to those generally more vulnerable in terms of their health and are often lacking basic hygiene.

Coronavirus couldn’t have come at a worse time. As well as eroding our public services, a decade of austerity has weakened people’s financial security, with the result that 10 million households in Britain have no savings.

Whilst some building societies have said that they will offer mortgage holidays, millions of the poorest people live in private rented accommodation where landlords are less willing and able to help. Nearly half of children living in private rented homes in England live in poverty – a staggering 1.3 million children, which is a 69% increase since 2008, according the National Housing Federation.

The Government has said it intends to end austerity, but local services and the NHS have not yet received injections of resources. Brexit has already depleted care and social services and NHS workforces at this crucial time.

During the 2008 financial crisis, the Labour Government bailed out the banks. As Boris Johnson gets to grips with the Coronavirus outbreak, he must ensure that – this time – the Government’s help goes to ordinary people so that they can get the support they need.


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