Catastrophe is a great leveller. Plague, revolution, war… they all reduce inequality. But as lockdown lengthens into months, it’s clear that Covid-19 is different. It is going to entrench difference. The lives of working-class Britons, unlike those of their wealthier counterparts, will not stand still while the economy is frozen; they will worsen.
In ordinary times, there are correctives to inequality. Education, for example. For some children, life is roughly sketched out before they even pull on their first school uniform. According to the Sutton Trust, children from the poorest fifth of families are almost a year (11.1 months) behind middle-income families in scores on vocabulary tests by the time they are five — often because parents do not have the time or resources to read with them at home. Schools exist to reduce this gap; they give poorer children the opportunity to pull level with their better-off peers.
With Covid-19 shuttering schools, all pupils are having to ‘learn’ from home. Inevitably, those disadvantaged pupils are falling behind. Wealthier parents are more likely to have the resources to home educate their children — or pay for tutors. Meanwhile, private schools are better equipped to facilitate distance learning. According to a survey by the pollsters Teacher Tapp, 27% of teachers in private secondary schools had worked with online video conferencing, compared with just 2% of teachers at state secondaries.
While children are losing out in lockdown, so, too, are their parents. The old class divide of the 20th century was crudely defined as existing between those who worked with their brains and those who toiled with their hands. The contemporary divide, for the foreseeable future at least, will be between those forced into potentially unsafe working environments and an office class who have the relative luxury of working from home.
Data from the ONS illustrate the gulf between these two groups. Men working in the lowest skilled occupations — security guards, bus drivers, shop workers — already have some of the highest Covid-19 death rates. While frontline healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses do not appear to be at significantly increased risk of death from the virus, those working in social care are, with rates of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 males and 9.6 deaths per 100,000 females. These roles are low status — as one carer told me when I worked in the sector while researching my book Hired in 2016, most care workers are “treated like glorified cleaners”. Now they are classed as ‘key workers’, even as the Government fails to provide enough Personal Protective Equipment.
In other words, Covid-19 mortality is a class issue.
Boris Johnson’s dilemma is unenviable. The notion that the lockdown can go on indefinitely until a vaccine is found is a popular misconception. According to YouGov, more than a third of the population (37%) believe the Government should wait until there are no new cases of Covid-19 at all before beginning to ease restrictions. But for every month we are locked down, the economy will take years to recover.
So informing people, as the Prime Minister did, that people can work if it is safe for them to do so, isn’t some dastardly Tory plot to give the virus an opportunity to wipe out the elderly and vulnerable. It’s an attempt to keep the economy moving. It is an unhappy consequence of the crisis that the manual and professional workforces face very different levels of risk.
This is compounded by the fact that inequality affects your risk from Covid. Men born in the most deprived areas of Britain can expect almost 20 (18.6) fewer years of good health compared to those born in the least deprived areas. These inequalities are even worse when it comes to black and ethnic minority Britons. Disadvantaged groups are therefore more likely to experience complications if they catch the virus.
But getting people back to work is a necessity. So what’s the solution?
One school of thought, until recently ascendant in the Labour Party, is to ‘tax the rich’. But the tab for months of lockdown is going to fall heavily on the heads of the working class — as well as on the middle-classes. It is, therefore, strange to see prominent Left-wingers crudely portraying any gradual economic re-opening as being motivated by “profit margins and shareholder returns” — rather than something that is essential to stave off economic collapse. The longer the lockdown continues, the more people are going to be squeezed during the process of recovery — including those who can least afford to be squeezed.
Rishi Sunak has — thankfully — ignored those who have called for the Job Retention Scheme to be brought to an end, and announced that it will continue until October. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, by paying 80% of the wages for 6.3 million jobs, the Chancellor has softened the burden of hardship significantly.
That has not stopped bad-taste disquiet about the scheme from some Tory MPs: former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the public had been “feather-bedded by the Chancellor” and were “happy to stay at home and do nothing”. Yet that says more about Iain Duncan Smith — who once claimed a £39 breakfast on expenses — than it does about the British people.
The surest way to ensure further outbreaks of Covid-19 is to push people back into unsafe environments because the threat of poverty hangs over them. One of the most galling sights in the early days on the virus, back in early March, was that of tube carriages packed with low-paid workers who didn’t have the option to stay at home. A repeat of this would undo much of the hard work that has gone into lockdown and make further strict restrictions — with the attendant economic damage — inevitable.
But how can we ensure that workplaces are safe? Since Keir Starmer took over as leader of the Labour Party, there have been calls to include senior Labour figures in the Government’s decision-making process. This is appropriate. When it comes to the pinch, politics is about material interests, and the different parties still — to some extent at least — represent the interests of different groups in society. The Labour Party remains the party of the trade unions, and anathema though it would be for many Right-wing Conservatives, the trade unions should have a bigger role in determining whether workplaces are safe for employees to return to.
The unions are already offering important advice that is not coming from elsewhere. For instance, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain has argued, the Government should extend health and safety rights to the 1 in 10 adults working in Britain’s ‘gig’ economy. For years, employers have been claiming that gig work offers an unparalleled degree of freedom and flexibility. Surely, then, that freedom should encompass the right to refuse work in situations that might significantly endanger health — without fear of dismissal.
Nevertheless, a reassessment of our relationship with risk is going to have to take place over the coming months. Those who cannot work from home will inevitably be putting themselves at greater risk than those who can. Practical measures can be taken to ensure those workers are as safe as possible, but some level of risk is unavoidable.
People are born into different circumstances and politics is in part a process of correction — the long, arduous struggle to curb inequalities that, should they be allowed to flourish, invariably generate further inequalities. One mark of a civilised society is how we treat people who do the jobs the rest of us are unwilling to do — jobs that put them at greater risk. Jobs that are fundamental to the security and comfort enjoyed by the rest of us.
The slogan of a decade ago — ‘We’re all in this together’ — was, to cynical ears, code for: look after yourself, because we don’t care. As the virus sweeps across Britain, that phrase has been resurrected. Yet it retains that familiar undertone: some are suffering significantly more than others. And as ever, the deciding factor is social class.