Nearly a month since the coronavirus lockdown began in the UK, it seems clear that the intentions behind shutting most retail outlets and workplaces, and encouraging everyone to stay at home as much as possible — to keep the death toll to manageable levels, preventing the NHS and the burial industry from being overwhelmed — are working, although no one should be under any illusions that Boris Johnson’s government has managed the crisis well. Nearly 13,000 people have died so far in hospitals in the UK, a figure that seriously underestimates the true death toll, because it cynically ignores those dying in care homes.
However, frontline NHS staff are also dying, and this is because they are still deprived of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), which is an absolute and unmitigated disgrace, showing how far our current elected officials are from the wartime spirit of the plucky British that they are so intent on selling to the public to cover up their failings.
If they really were who they claim to be, they would have pulled out all the stops to get factories manufacturing PPE in as short a time as possible, but they’re not who they claim to be: they’re incompetent disciples of a neo-liberal project that is interested only in elected officials handing out contracts — and all profit-making ability — to private companies, and that is determined to destroy the state provision of services, something that the Tories have been gleefully doing, not least to the NHS, since they first returned to power almost ten long and dreadful years ago.
To hear Boris Johnson praising the NHS for looking after him so attentively — after he himself contracted the coronavirus as a result of his idiotic risk-taking and denial just a few short weeks ago — is enough to make all decent people feel sick, because the Tories are 100% responsible for the cuts to the NHS that have made its job so difficult since the virus started tearing through the population in February.
In addition, of course, while the shutdown of huge swathes of the economy — and the almost total prohibition on socialising — has led to the crisis being managed, Britain’s death toll is still miserably high, an outcome that can — and must — be attributed directly to those responsible: the government and their advisers, who, in the beginning, were fatally distracted by a callous “herd immunity” scenario, and who then waited for far too long before implementing a lockdown.
Here and now, however, as I try, on an ongoing basis, to make sense of this crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetimes — and that can only really be compared to the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide — the main focus of my concerns is not the government, but the economy; and, specifically, those who are suffering because of its almost total collapse, and, in looking to the future, the huge but almost unspoken necessity of rebuilding our societies in a more sustainable and equable manner than has been the case over most of my adult life, and, particularly, and most alarmingly, over the last decade.
Money in a time of no work
In response to the devastation to the economy caused by the sudden shutdown of all pubs, bars and restaurants, all entertainment venues, including live music venues, theatres and cinemas, all sports facilities and almost all retail outlets, except supermarkets and other food outlets, pharmacies and a few other protected sectors of the retail economy, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, almost immediately promised an unprecedented £330bn in bailout loans for business, following up with a promise that the government “would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers” — up to £2,500 a month — “if companies kept them on their payroll, rather than lay them off as the economy crashes.”
That promise about furloughed staff was nearly a month ago (on March 20), but it has only just been confirmed today that furloughed workers will be paid by the end of the month. And as the BBC noted, “The scheme currently runs until 1 June. But there are fears firms could start to cut staff unless the government soon clarifies whether the scheme will be extended.”
As the BBC also noted, the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry) said that it was “worried” that companies “will be forced to start redundancy procedures this Saturday to comply with the minimum 45-day consultation period.” CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn, said, “We are very concerned that businesses will be forced into a position potentially of having to make people permanently redundant.”
Missing from the chancellor’s original plans were Britain’s five million self-employed workers, and it wasn’t until March 26 that their needs were addressed, with a promise that they took would be eligible to have 80% of their profits covered by the government, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month for three months, with the Guardian adding that the chancellor said that the payments “would be backdated to March and cover those earning up to £50,000, or 95% of the self-employed.” However, payments will not be made until June, and it is unclear how many of the self-employed will survive until then.
Just yesterday, IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) published research establishing that “almost half (45%) of the self-employed fear they will not have enough money to cover basic costs like rent and bills during the Coronavirus crisis, despite the government support on offer”, and that, “Overall, two thirds (66%) also say they are worried they will burn through all their savings in the next three months.”
It is also unclear whether 95% of the self-employed will actually be eligible. Just two days ago, London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote to the chancellor, and business secretary Alok Sharma, suggesting that “up to 290,000 Londoners, 12 per cent of the capital’s total workforce, are not eligible to receive anything from the scheme”, as City A.M. described it.
In addition to the above, there are also the large number of people — many in the retail and hospitality sectors — who were not employed with any kind of security whatsoever, and who suddenly found, when the lockdown started, that they were suddenly made unemployed, and have had to sign up for Universal Credit, with Sky News reporting yesterday that 1.4m people have signed on for Universal Credit since the lockdown began. Even under normal circumstances, it takes five weeks for claimants to receive their first payment, and it is therefore to be expected that there will now be longer delays — and all for a grand total of £342.72 a month for single people under 25, £409.89 a month for single people over 25, £488.59 a month for a couple under 25, and £594.04 a month for a couple over 25. For those with children, there is a two-child limit on payments, introduced in 2017, with each child being eligible for £235.83 a month (or £281.25 for the first child, if born before April 6, 2017).
Those on Universal Credit are at least eligible for support with housing costs, but elsewhere in the economy the newly-unemployed’s housing costs have not been addressed by the government, unless they have mortgages, in which case a mortgage holiday has been proposed.
Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for renters. Although the government recognised that there might be a deluge of cruel evictions if they didn’t take action, which they did by banning evictions for a three-month period, no pressure has been exerted on landlords to write off their rents for three months.
Instead, some are offering rent holidays, but these require paying back — along with the current rent — when the crisis is over, thereby not only hurling many renters into a financially intolerable position, but also failing to recognise that this still involves tenants paying rent to cover a period of unemployment that was not their fault.
Morally and ethically, landlords should take a hit, but as we’re seeing from the private rented sector, and also from the business rent sector, landlords’ sense of entitlement runs so deep that they are unwilling to accept that, as the entire economy suffers its worst damage since the Great Depression, they too might have to be inconvenienced. For landlords who own their properties outright, there is absolutely no argument for them insisting that their tenants should pay rent when they have no work, but even for those with buy-to-let mortgages, the only fair solution, it seems to me, is for the mortgage holidays for which landlords are eligible to be extended to their tenants, with the rent essentially written off the duration of the crisis as a no-payment period.
In the meantime, as Frances Ryan reported for the Guardian today, entitled, ‘Britain has a hidden coronavirus crisis – and it’s shaped by inequality’, “New research shows that a fifth of private renters had to choose between paying for food and bills and paying their landlords this month.” As she added, despite the government introducing a temporary ban on evictions, “a quarter surveyed have already lost their home. Unable to pay the rent, they had to voluntarily move in with friends or parents.”
The research, undertaken by Opinium last weekend, sought to assess the situation faced by the “one in five UK households – 4.5 million families – [who] live in private rented accommodation”, and the similar number who live in some form of social housing.
As the Guardian stated:
Despite the government’s measures, and guidance to landlords asking them to “be compassionate”, tenants who spoke to the Guardian said they had already faced threats of punitive action from their landlords. One self-employed renter, who preferred to remain unnamed, told the Guardian that when he approached his landlord to ask for a deferment of rent, he was served with an eviction notice in reply.
Others who have lost income are being forced into taking whatever work they can in order to continue to pay their rents, often in front line jobs in the gig economy, such as driving taxis or delivering takeaway food, potentially exposing themselves to infection with coronavirus.
“Many renters feel they have no choice but to break social distancing guidelines and go out to work, just so their landlords can continue to profit,” said Amina Gichinga of the London Renters Union. “How are people supposed to pay rent with no income and at least a month’s wait for any government assistance? How are people in low-paid jobs meant to clear hundreds or thousands of pounds of rent arrears in the future? During this global pandemic, people should be able to prioritise their safety and paying for food and other essentials. All rent payments need to be suspended and rent arrears need to be waived urgently to keep renters safe from eviction and from debt, and to prevent the further spread of the virus.”
An LRU petition on the 38 Degrees website calling for rents to be suspended has already secured over 100,000 signatures, but Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, isn’t interested, even though Opinium’s polling “found overwhelming support for a rent suspension, with three in four renters – and even a slight majority of landlords – in support.”
As many of you will have no doubt noticed, however, the problems faced by those at the sharp end of the shutdown get very little media coverage, as two groups of people still in full-time work — MPs and mainstream media journalists — persistently forget about them, even though there is clearly a huge amount of anxiety and suffering going on behind the scenes.
And while the better-off — those in large homes, and often still on full pay while working from home — have the opportunity to wax lyrical about the delights of lockdown life, those at the sharper end really don’t have that kind of luxury, and their plight will need to be taken into account much more than it has been as the crisis continues, because, while the professional pundits start discussing how to ease the lockdown, we need to bear in mind that there is no magic wand that means that, after a few months of hardship, we can reopen the world and engage in “business as usual”, as it was in the dirty, hectic, selfish, environmentally disastrous days that existed until just a month ago.
As the Guardian reported in an under-read article just a few days ago, entitled, ‘Coronavirus distancing may need to continue until 2022, say experts’, a paper published in the journal Science has suggested that “[p]hysical distancing measures may need to be in place intermittently until 2022”, in what the Guardian described as “an analysis that suggests there could be resurgences of Covid-19 for years to come.”
The article “concludes that a one-time lockdown will not be sufficient to bring the pandemic under control and that secondary peaks could be larger than the current one without continued restrictions”, with one scenario predicting that a resurgence “could occur as far in the future as 2025 in the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment.”
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard and co-author of the study, said, “Infections spread when there are two things: infected people and susceptible people. Unless there is some enormously larger amount of herd immunity than we’re aware of … the majority of the population is still susceptible. Predicting the end of the pandemic in the summer [of 2020] is not consistent with what we know about the spread of infections.”
In contrast to this scenario, I’ve been somewhat surprised, in the last few days, to hear from some people who are giddily awaiting the return of “business as usual” — the cruise ship fanatics eager to get back on board, despite cruise ships having been revealed as virus-incubating death traps — and those who, on an environmentally aware friend’s Facebook page, responded to being asked what they were looking forward to doing once the lockdown is over, started reeling off the names of all the foreign holiday destinations they intended to fly to.
Are we incapable of learning anything, and unable to see that this crisis must lead to a massive change in the way we operate — as I discussed in my last article, Health Not Wealth: The World-Changing Lessons of the Coronavirus? And are we unable to remember that many millions of other people — already at the bottom of society, economically — are going to come out of this even poorer and more disadvantaged than before, both at home and abroad, and that we must demand that — as well as adequately funding our health services and our frontline health workers, and all the other people previously dismissed as unimportant workers, who have now been revealed as much more essential than the rich and famous — we must also create a society that is more equal, more fair and much, much more conscious than before.