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Up the workers: how Covid reset society’s values After decades of disdain for working people, their worth has risen rapidly. Will we back up our words with action?

A giant rainbow mural, created by Wirral Council (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A giant rainbow mural, created by Wirral Council (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

May 19, 2020   10 mins

Last Thursday, those of us who are not ‘key workers’ stood on our doorsteps — as we have done every week since 26 March — clapping to demonstrate our appreciation of those taking risks on our behalf.

Something else is happening too, as we stand in our doorways making a noise: there is a certain relief in making ourselves visible again, at simply being physically on the street at the same time as a significant number of other people, albeit while ‘socially distanced’.

Many of those who are now shut indoors, particularly white-collar workers, are unused to being invisible. They are accustomed to being endlessly busy and seen to be busy, in offices, in meetings, with an ever-changing cast of people. (‘busy,’ after all, had become one of the chief indicators of modern merit.)

Now, many higher-paid workers find that both their visibility and their perceived importance has been unexpectedly muted, while that of others has soared. At the same time, many among them are also understandably worried about their livelihoods in a post-Covid landscape.

This alteration in perceptions of value — a national redistribution of esteem — has happened very rapidly. Within a few weeks, the advent of Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown — amid an unprecedented peacetime death toll — has pared Britain down and exposed the essential workings and workers of our country.

Most notably, there are those at the NHS front-line, united in a communal effort to prevent the very sick from dying. Around them are the others who help to keep the entire populace fed, watered and safe from harm, including workers in the emergency services and transport, delivery and food supply networks. Among the remainder of the population, there is a new intensity of gratitude felt towards those who brave potential infection to assist others.

And yet — in recent years, well before Covid-19 struck — the life of a ‘key worker’ in many parts of the UK was proving ever more of a struggle. Last year, Mark Chiverton, a Unison representative for the south-east, representing public service workers, told its local government conference: “It is almost impossible now for many of our members to live in many of our towns and cities, with homes out of reach.”

The problem was worst in London. In 2015, commentators such as Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times were observing that London property was not only unaffordable for essential workers on relatively low salaries — such as nurses, firefighters, hospital porters and ambulance drivers — but increasingly so also for middle-class professionals such as doctors, teachers and professors. The complaint had been heard for many years before, of course — intensifying since the financial crisis of 2008 — but nothing decisive on the part of the government was done to address it.

The escalating cost of renting or buying London property — an increasingly attractive investment for large companies and overseas buyers — was damaging both its social coherence and its wider economy. In terms of housing, London had gradually priced out first its working-class, and then its younger middle-class, particularly those with families.

Three years ago, a report called Estimating The Value of Discounted Rental Accommodation had found that this skewing led to mass relocation from the inner to the outer boroughs of London, or further afield. It came, researchers said, at a cost to the capital of billions of pounds a year, and risked resulting in a pattern of financial segregation similar to that of Paris, in which the city centre is serviced by a large population who mainly live in densely-populated suburbs.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Peter Urwin, said that “the wage of a teacher, or nurse or tourism worker is much lower than the productive contribution they make to the economy and society’” something long recognised, but more often informally expressed in hazy terms of moral rather than economic worth, and thereby more easily ignored by policy-makers.

Urwin’s report, however, estimated that supplying subsidised rental housing to ‘key workers’ resulted in an average benefit of £27,000 per household to the capital’s economy. If the average cost of the subsidy for affordable homes was £14,000, as he calculated, then the net gain to the economy for each household stood at £12,500 or so. The alternative would be that — given a choice between a struggling city-centre life, and a more affordable life even with a potentially stressful commute — key workers would increasingly either choose the latter, or simply leave London entirely and find jobs in their new locality.

Despite some valiant local efforts, to date there has been no coherent national strategy to resolve this situation. Serial Conservative leaders have clung to versions of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policy of ‘right to buy’ for social housing stock, even as rates of building new social housing remain very low. As such stock has steadily dwindled, need has increased, and both homelessness and social housing waiting lists have soared.

While home ownership remains an ideal for many, it has long been clear that security of tenure at a manageable cost — of the kind once widely guaranteed by a strong social housing supply — would fundamentally change the deep sense of precariousness now experienced by so many lower-paid workers and younger people.

Housing has long been both one of the public’s most fundamental concerns, and a growing source of political disruption. In a Britain suddenly reshaped by Covid-19, these already pressing considerations of who is housed where, and with what measure of security, are going to take on a new and even more urgent form.

Housing, though, is only the most obvious in a succession of policies over a number of decades which has made ordinary life more difficult for many of those on low to moderate salaries, including a high proportion of those in ‘key worker’ roles. Between 2011 and 2018, most public sector pay was frozen or capped at a 1% rise, outstripped by inflation. Why has the UK government’s treatment of its most necessary citizens been so cavalier?

A partial explanation might be that where culture leads, policy follows. In the decades immediately following the shared national effort and trauma of the Second World War, social status attached to ideals of duty, hard work and sacrifice. To some extent war had been a democratising force: the Princess Elizabeth had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a driver and mechanic. When Buckingham Palace took a direct hit during the Blitz in September 1940, the Queen Mother famously said, “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Without idealising those decades, or glossing over their inequalities, there was nonetheless a post-war acceptance that it was the job of government to provide the public with broad access to decent healthcare, education, and secure housing of reliable quality. Orwell, writing during the war, had predicted that “this war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue.”

That wasn’t wholly true, of course, but the war had certainly resulted in a greater equality of perceived value, which demanded its echo in public policy. Politicians answered the call: in the early 1950s, for example, Harold Macmillan, then the Conservative housing minister, launched an ambitious housing drive which successfully committed to delivering 300,000 new homes a year.

In recent decades, however, perceptions of public value have grown increasingly patchy and distorted. I have lived through much of that period of distortion, and — as with all personal observations — memories must be handled with care. But I can certainly recall that in my childhood in the 1970s and early 80s the prevailing adult judgement of other people related to the word ‘decent’ — not in the sense of ‘respectable’, but in that of good-hearted, kind and willing to put oneself out for other people.

Money was useful, we were given to understand, and could provide for a greater degree of comfort and opportunity: if you were comfortably off, as we were, you were lucky and should be grateful. Both my parents had grown up in working-class Belfast families with little money to spare, and so they appreciated the security a higher income could provide.

But they also understood that having money had no bearing on someone’s essential decency, and often existed in inverse proportion to that valuable quality. This wasn’t an unusual view then, and I don’t expect it is now — at least not within families and close-knit communities, where people are dependent on one another and have the ability to observe personal characteristics at close quarters. Yet for the past few decades it has not been reflected in the broader culture of the UK.

One of the first changes was that personal value began increasingly to be signalled by the possession of ‘designer’ gear. I remember a distinct excitement when a Next store first came to Belfast in the mid-Eighties, and clothes from there were at first considered ‘designer’ — until the concept of ‘designer’ travelled further into the higher echelons of cost throughout the 90s, to the point at which flashing a  £1,000 handbag or teetering through the streets in a pair of Manolos somehow established you as a person of desirability and taste.

At the same time, the word ‘chav’ began to be widely used to describe working-class people, especially those who appeared to be signalling their status through material possessions (something which those in higher income brackets were already frequently doing, but with different accents and approval ratings.) A ‘chav’ was urban, sexually unrestrained, low on educational aspirations but high on booze and bling, and seemingly undeserving of wider support. Both the term ‘chav’ and its usage were soaked in snobbery.

From the new millennium onwards, a new class-based cruelty was reflected in — now discontinued — television shows such as Jeremy Kyle, which put hard-up guests, often from difficult backgrounds or with addictions, on display before studio audiences for popular censure and mockery. Culture was dividing society more explicitly into winners and losers: even peak-time programmes such as Big Brother or the X-Factor encouraged an atmosphere of voyeurism and selective humiliation for those who failed to judge either their own talents or the nuances of self-presentation accurately.

Poverty was increasingly depicted not as a practical material condition but as a form of moral disease, seemingly experienced by those who failed to budget properly, or were reluctant to work. At the same time, however, a number of London hotels began catering to the new international super-rich, with suites priced upwards of £10,000 a night. The old feeling in Britain that there was something inherently repellent about such obvious excess had been replaced by a new climate of deference to it. 

Yet as the ‘gig economy’ became established, and employment benefits grew more precarious, the fast-expanding ranks of the ‘working poor’ found their daily reality was very far indeed from the spendthrift caricature of the worse-off. Members of this group were increasingly counting every hard-won penny. A study in March found that three-quarters of children in relative poverty in the UK were in families where at least one adult was in work — something that is likely to be sharply exacerbated by the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.


At the beginning, the virus was occasionally spoken of as “a great equaliser” and in a few aspects that is true. We’re all on lockdown, with only necessary exceptions. The virus seized the heir to the throne, and sent the Prime Minister to intensive care.  Famous people now film themselves cutting their own hair. International travel is banned, and social life has shrunk to Zoom calls and socially distanced walks.

Yet the more we know about Covid-19, the more we discover that it is indeed discriminatory in its attack. Statistically there are worse outcomes for the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, men and BAME people. And the risk of catching it is heightened by existing inequalities: it is much harder to stay virus-free, for example, if you already live in overcrowded accommodation, have to take the Tube to work at rush hour, or are a ‘key worker’ with insufficient PPE.

It is hard right now to imagine the shape of a post-Covid UK — but even if this pandemic is wrestled under control, the awareness of the effect that might be wrought by another one in the future will write society an altered script. 

Some changes may play out naturally. With packed public transport recognised as a potential source of contagion, it will make more sense for ‘key workers’ in London and other UK cities to be housed nearer their city-centre workplaces, so that they can walk or cycle to work. A proportion of city-centre office space could fall empty or be converted to housing, as higher numbers of white-collar employees work from home; more affordable city rental properties suddenly become available for a greater number of people. Across the UK, the future may be simultaneously more spread out and more local, with ‘The Great Wen’ no longer exerting its outsize magnetic tug.

The most severe impact of the economic devastation will fall, as it invariably does, upon those who have the least financial security to begin with. But the precise nature of how government responds to the extreme challenges of the post-corona future, and whom it supports, will also — in large part — be determined by the demonstrable strength of public opinion.

Let us assume that ministers, and Boris Johnson in particular — whose life was recently saved by the NHS — are genuine in their admiration and gratitude for the health service and its workers. Yet already that gratitude does not seem to be translating into unambiguous policy. 

Last week the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, indicated that migrant healthcare workers, currently employed by the NHS and paying tax and National Insurance, must continue to pay the designated ‘immigration health surcharge’ to help fund the NHS, which will reach £625 per person later this year. An outraged British Medical Association correctly observed that ‘skilled international colleagues’ are putting their lives on the hospital frontline to fight Covid-19 in the UK, and that ‘it beggars belief that they are still being charged to use the very service they are working for.’

A leaked government document also hinted at a possible two-year NHS pay freeze, which met with outrage from unions and professional bodies — and was swiftly denied by the Prime Minister with the emphatic words: “Absolutely not. Anyone who suggests that can sit on it.” But the Prime Minister has robustly denied things which have come to pass before.    

In the past 30 years or so, British society has gradually become more mesmerised by gossip, celebrity and wealth, and more respectful of people for how they appear and what they possess rather than what they actually do. The forces of glamour and entertainment gobbled up quieter, more altruistic measures of public service. An ‘influencer’ in his or her twenties, who could provide an online illusion of a desirable body and an aspirational life, held considerably more kudos than a middle-aged hospital porter or cleaner who managed to remain cheerful while doing arduous, necessary work day after day. Even conceptions of virtue became increasingly performative, more often located in joining vociferous denunciations on Twitter than in quietly emptying a bedpan or helping an elderly neighbour.

In a very short and disorienting time, these mores have been turned on their head: the public has a tendency to assess social worth more clear-sightedly when it is afraid. The real question is whether the aftermath of Covid-19 will translate into a more permanent alteration in society’s values. Wilde said that a cynic was someone who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, and I don’t think that the bulk of the British public is cynical. It can, however, be forgetful.

Yet unless the present sound of clapping is not to ring hollow in retrospect, the public will need to keep reminding the government that it expects a fundamental and long-lasting change in the treatment of those ‘key workers’ who keep the UK running.

For decades these employees have been steadily exposed to ever greater levels of insecurity, a kind of slow-grinding institutionalised contempt. Now they are regularly exposing themselves to Covid-19 in the name of duty, on behalf of the wider public. Will the rest of us remain grateful, once the clapping quietens down? I hope so. Let’s see.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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Ian Whitehouse
Ian Whitehouse
4 years ago

I’m getting tired of having to make this correction. Early on in this article Jenny McCartney refers to ‘ambulance drivers’ – as in “essential workers on relatively low salaries ” such as nurses, firefighters, hospital porters and ambulance drivers”. There is no such job as ‘ambulance driver’ – it disappeared with the 20th century. Paramedics today are skilled clinicians, most have degrees and many have post graduate degrees. My son, a Paramedic with the London Air Ambulance is part of a rapid response trauma team that can carry out, and regularly does, heart surgery on the roadside following major accidents, shooting or stabbing incidents. I would agree that his pay is not commensurate – but please ditch this redundant term ‘ambulance drivers’.

4 years ago

Don’t be daft. It will dog eat dog and biggest nastiest dog will win.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

There is much to agree with in this article but also some inconsistencies. The only way to bring house prices down is to build more houses. Mayor Khan has completely failed to meet his promises in this regard, just like all his other broken promises. If, as Jenny suggests, house prices force key workers to move out of London and work elsewhere, guess what? Key worker wages in London will increase.
I should also point out that many key workers are not on low salaries at all. Nurses, firefighters, paramedics (pace Ian’s comment below), police officers all are well paid and don’t get me started on Tube drivers! Of course, hospital porters, healthcare assistants, supermarket workers are less well-paid but paying them more will just, indirectly but inexorably, make low paid non-key workers worse off.
I can see why the immigration health surcharge might make some people angry but the logic is perfectly sound. It makes no more sense to excuse NHS workers from paying it than it does to suggest that a Polish bricklayer should be able to live rent-free in a house he helped build. And besides, it’s not as if the BMA’s “international colleagues” can’t afford £625. UK hospital doctors are amongst the best paid in Europe – by a large margin in many cases. That’s why they choose to come here and not, say, Portugal, doh!
Finally, the evidence of the last election is that it’s the Left that has failed over many years to recognise the needs and value of the “working man”. Those on the Right are generally full of respect for the tradesmen and women they engage. Even the toffs, who are comfortable with the notion of “staff” in a way the nouveau riche Islington socialists just are not. You just have to note James O’Brien’s furious anger at the plumber who dared contradict him last week to see the paradoxical disdain of a paid-up Lefty for the workers.
To return to the theme of Jenny’s article, I think attitudes will change but not necessarily as much as people think or might hope.

Paul T
Paul T
4 years ago

I agree that workers like carers do a great job in difficult circumstances and are paid too little for it. However, I am getting sick of the term hero being applied to people for doing the jobs they are paid to do, sick of rainbow (well of course) signs appearing in fields where I live telling me to support the ‘heroes’ of the NHS. I feel personally like setting fire to them (the signs).
Just listening to a programme about the battle of Arnhem, where British soldiers in WW2 fixed bayonets and charged a German line to clear the area. That was heroism and people should learn the difference.

4 years ago

The issues Jenny identifies apply equally in “desirable” rural areas such as Cornwall. Here one third of children are in poverty with parents in insecure jobs and living in insecure housing. We do need much greater social housing provision and reform of the employment laws to secure employment rights for those left in bogus and insecure “self-employment”.

We should abandon too the dogma of the last few decades of “private good public bad” and return to social provision of social goods.

David Waring
David Waring
4 years ago

Covid is now yet another excuse to shovel yet more illegal immigrants into our overcrowded island to the detriment of the existing residents of these islands for the benefit of the Liberal Left already very rich media Political London upper class.