Stephen Colegrave reports on how COVID-19 only intensifies the disparity of wealth, health and opportunity that is driving the UK apart.
During Lockdown, the Government has often appealed to the great British public with the platitude: ‘we are all in this together’, which has become a favourite crowd-pleaser.
The current Chancellor Rishi Sunak borrowed the phrase from his predecessor, George Osborne, which in itself should have been a warning sign. Ironically, Osborne used the phrase at the 2014 Conservative Conference when he announced some of the most savage austerity cuts including a pledge to freeze the pay of four million public sector workers. The same public-sector workers that the Government now applauds as heroes.
There is an element of truth in the phrase. Everyone is susceptible to COVID-19 or, to be more exact, everyone has the ability to be infected and infect others. We are certainly not in it together when the risks of dying are considered. ONS data announced on 1 May, showed that the most deprived areas of England and Wales have 55.1 deaths per 100,000, more than twice the 25.3 deaths per 100,000 in affluent areas.
Similarly, if you are Black you are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than the rest of the population. The ONS data showed in deaths in terms of occupations the worst hit were relatively low paid and predominantly male. Security guards, taxi drivers and chefs were the worst hit with bus drivers, sales assistants and construction workers also had high death rates.
Differing Experiences of Lockdown
People’s experience of lockdown is very different depending on their income, age and homeownership. Many middle-aged and middle-class people seem to be having a relatively ‘good’ lockdown, sharing their favourite music, pictures of their gardens and dog walks. They are more likely to be able to work remotely and are enjoying a respite from the daily commute. Their main inconvenience is queuing for Waitrose and a lack of flour for baking sourdough bread.
From the beginning of lockdown, Chelsea was rife with private parties and meetings up in gardens and houses.
That is not to diminish the great community work many of this group are doing or their observation of the lockdown rules, but their lived experience is very different.
The very wealthy are even more insulated from the common experience. Their most important choice at the beginning was whether to lockdown with their staff or not. Most have homes that are perfectly equipped for isolation. Anecdotally, even with these advantages have been less likely to abide by the lockdown rules.
From the beginning of lockdown, Chelsea was rife with private parties and meetings up in gardens and houses. Already, private jet companies are targeting this group to fly to the South of France. Hedge Funders have and are still making a killing from volatile markets, while billionaires and captains of industry, like Richard Branson, are seeking huge financial support when millions are on Universal Credit.
Of course, there are exceptions to these generalisations. Many middle-class doctors and members of the healthcare professions have worked incredibly hard and put themselves at considerable risk. Middle class families have also been blighted by the experience of their elderly relatives in care homes. But in the main their lockdown has been much more bearable than for other parts of society: the young and old as well as the working class and the poor.
The lockdown has exacerbated the inequality between these groups versus the relatively well off and established.
Struggling with Lockdown
The young are finding the Lockdown is effecting their mental health much more than other groups. Half of the under eleven year olds ringing into NSPCC’s Childline are worried about COVID-19. The recent Mental Health Foundation Survey found that that 44% of 18-24 years age group were suffering from loneliness due to Lockdown, more than any other age group.
Over 2 million pensioners were living below the poverty line before Lockdown according to Age UK and are very vulnerable.
Low income workers are having a tough lockdown. More of them have either been working in essential services or have had to keep working, but they are also more like to lose their jobs than the rest of the working population. They have had to expose themselves to more risk in travelling to work and in work itself. It’s nice that essential workers like couriers, postmen, supermarket workers are being recognised by the rest of society but they are more likely to be living in cramped housing and more likely to be in debt.
Even before lockdown, a decade of austerity had pushed millions into poverty and more debt. 30% of all children in the UK live in poverty and this was already forecast to rise to 5 million by the Children’s Society from 4.1 Million in 2017, but because of COVID-19 this will probably increase further. The percentage of poor children rises 45% in in ethnic minority families. The Department of Work and Pensions mantra that getting parents into work will solve this has not worked as 70% of children are in working families.
Wartime analogies don’t help
The Government and much of the media are using wartime analogies for the Lockdown. Vera Lynn is being dragged out of retirement at 103 years of age. VE Day celebrations were hijacked. The Blitz is the favourite analogy, although there was of course a huge disparity between the experience of the Blitz in the East and West End. But there is a feeling that after such a huge sacrifice and loss of life some good should come.
Although the death toll cannot compare, after the First World War there was an advancement of women, and after the Second World War there was the formation of a proper social welfare system and the NHS. But we have to remember Johnson is no Atlee and his chief advisor Cummings is no Aneurin Bevan. Unfortunately, the best analogy is likely to be not the post-war reconstruction of the late 1940s, the Banking Crisis of 2008, when billions were spent to prop up the status quo.
Even during this period of huge crisis, this Government has shown its true nature. Its Little England Brexit view of the world, led to British exceptionalism that decided to ignore the data from China and Italy and be enticed by Herd Immunity. The formation of the SAGE group awash with mates and modellers but devoid of any public health expertise had all the hallmarks of Cummings. His enthusiasm for bending procurement rules and for commissioning companies like Palantir and Faculty AI to create surveillance and data mining with the NHS App don’t bode well for the future.
If you think Johnson had a ‘Road to Damascus’ style of conversion to back real One Nation Toryism in hospital, you’re likely to be disappointed. The reality is that we have more than four years to go with this Government before we can vote in an Attlee type reforming administration, by which time the debt to the NHS and the good lockdown intentions are likely to be forgotten. The big fear is that the UK electorate will continue its habit of voting against its best interests, egged on by fake news and the gaming of social media, either by the Conservative party or with their complicity.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is spending so much money in propping up the economy because he wants to return to exactly where it was before and not change it. As I overheard in the queue at Waitrose, ‘somebody has got to pay for this’ and what is the betting that Sunak steals austerity policies from George Osborne just like he did with the phrase ‘We are all in it together”.
The Real COVID-19 legacy
The most likely legacy from COVID-19 is to be an even bigger disparity between the wealthy and the poor and inequalities in health, aspiration and the quality of life. But this will really just be an acceleration of a long-term trend throughout the last decade. Even before COVID-19 it was apparent that the gains we had made in talking health equalities since the Second World War were being reversed.
In his review this year: ‘Health Equity in England: Marmot Review 10 Years On’ for the Institute of Health Inequality and Health Foundation, Professor Marmot looked at health inequalities over the last decade and showed that the life expectancy of the poorest 10% of women had actually declined and health inequality, child poverty and homelessness had all increased.
There might be more remote working for the middle classes in the future. The environment has had a few months respite from our relentless efforts to destroy it. But how many of the 7.5m people on furlough will have a job in October? What about the over a million people who claimed Universal Credit for the first time in the last 2 weeks of March? 15% of people had no savings when lockdown began and 30% less than £1500 so there were many vulnerable people who are going to be down to nothing at the end of lockdown.
The Government believes it can keep us feeling we are all in this together. The support for Lockdown has surprised them. At the end of April, a YouGov survey indicated that 77% of people supported Lockdown, seemingly the strongest support from anywhere around the world where similar research was carried out.
But like Churchill, Johnson should not confuse this with support for the Government. The strong support for Lockdown is driven largely by support for the NHS, a health service that is revered like nowhere else in the world. The Government was clever to make ‘Save the NHS’ the central focus of the lockdown, but this will have a severe backlash, if the Government, like every other Conservative Government, continues to starve it of budget and continues its policy of creeping privatisation.
In an Election year in 2025, when hopefully the virus has disappeared, the disparity in health, wealth and opportunity is likely to have put us back thirty or so years. It is going to be harder for the Government to convince us that we are still ‘in this together’. With any luck, the media and the opposition in Parliament will step up and convince us all that it was a myth and never a reality.