Learning from lockdown

By Bryn Glover

The past year has witnessed a kind of global experiment in public health and social security. Most of the results have been depressing. In the United Kingdom, a corrupt and incompetent government has allowed over 125,000 of its citizens to die from the Sars-Cov-2 virus. Unemployment has soared to nearly two million. Foodbank usage, homelessness and child poverty are also at record levels. Nevertheless some outcomes of this unwelcome experiment have potential to improve our lives in the future.

The covid-19 pandemic has ripped up the Tory rulebook on government spending. In his budget on 3rd March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer extended a scheme to pay the wages of nine million furloughed workers until September, even as public debt hit its highest level since 1945. In a way, the emergency legislation simply proved that, in a crisis, a government can find mechanisms to cushion people against poverty and joblessness. ‘Building back better’ after the pandemic must involve switching from emergency measures to policies that are economically and socially and environmentally sustainable in the long term. Public spending must continue to flow quickly and automatically to those who need it.

Talk of a green new deal is now mainstream, as is an awareness of the structural changes that are needed in the energy and motor and aviation industries to reduce climate risks. The aftermath of the global crisis will also give us a rare opportunity to fix the economics of welfare just as, after World War Two, voters and governments in rich countries recast the relationship between the state and its citizens. In Britain, the social safety net modelled on the ideas of William Beveridge was already creaking before covid-19 struck. A decade of Tory austerity had undermined the public sector. Some governments responded to the pandemic by handing out money to the poor and unemployed in a bid to stimulate demand in the economy. More than three-quarters of Americans support President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion stimulus bill, which includes $1,400 cheques for most adults. In January, an opinion poll found that two-thirds of UK citizens support the idea of converting the furlough scheme into a universal basic income, i.e. an unconditional recurring payment to all adults.

It is a political truism that you get what you pay for. The UK hovers around the lowest taxed nations in Europe. Only citizens of Cyprus, Malta and Ireland pay less. Instead of relying on public funding for essential services, we sustain the biggest charity-funded sector on the continent. So the financial implications of building back better after covid are clear: personal and corporate taxation will have to increase to general European levels, and we ought not to shrink from saying that a genuinely progressive tax system is the only way to rebuild the welfare state. However, a radical reform of tax will offer serious opportunities for looking at new ways to calculate tax, to eliminate fraud and dodging, and to shift the main burden towards those most able to pay. 

The NHS has never received more day-to-day attention than over the past 12 months. But clapping frontline workers on a Thursday evening doesn’t pay their food bills, and the government’s recent proposal of a 1% annual pay rise for its health care ‘heroes’ is utterly disgraceful. Post-pandemic reform must therefore address the ‘pricing system’ of labour because it’s clear to everyone that key workers, such as doctors, cleaners or bus drivers, are more valuable to society than bankers or hedge fund managers in spite of the discrepancy in their earnings.

The ‘world-beating’ rollout of anti-covid vaccines has undoubtedly been a triumph. The vaccine is a key weapon in the fight against the virus, in helping to stop the deaths and get life back to something more normal. But now the government should start planning for covid-19 as an endemic disease, with regular booster jabs of tweaked vaccines and a menu of therapies to prevent lethal outbreaks in future. Individual behaviour will also have to change as a result of the pandemic. The persistence of chronic infections and debilitating ‘long covid’ means the next stage of the pandemic could be just as grim as lockdowns and school closures. Habits like mask-wearing may become part of everyday life. Vaccine passports and restrictions in crowded spaces could become mandatory. 

For years, green socialists have been calling on people to change their lifestyles in order to protect the planet and reduce inequality. In the face of covid-19, governments have a chance to make a global policy of such changes. The world now knows the striking reduction in carbon emissions that can be achieved by cutting down non-essential travel, either to work or on foreign holidays. The financial, personal and environmental advantages of cutting back on unnecessary travel are clear, and should become part of the ‘new normal’.

Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee. He has a background in science and technology

Photo: Mat Napo/Unsplash

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