The news came last Monday. For three weeks, members of the British public will only be permitted to leave the house under a handful of strict conditions. There is no telling how the course of the country’s battle with coronavirus will develop before we are all allowed to go outside again. A short three weeks ago, such strict measures were almost unimaginable, with Boris Johnson still backing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. Last week it was alleged that this was by Dominic Cummings’ design. Allegedly he proposed that the government’s action plan should be one of ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’, a quote that has since been dismissed as ‘a highly defamatory fabrication’ by No 10. Was the lockdown announcement truly a U-turn? Can a government’s priorities change so rapidly as this? The measures now in place are ‘draconian’, Johnson says. Still, he avoids referring to our new way of life as ‘lockdown’.
The government’s advice has been framed as unambiguous. In its practical implications, this could not be further from the truth. The greatest movement of people will be to and from their workplaces, as most forms of labour can’t be done from home. Thousands of people today asked themselves if they should be going to work. Many can’t afford not to, because a large number of employers are demanding attendance, even if the work involved is ‘non-essential’. Corporations are trying desperately to float profit at the expense of their employees’ health – JD Sport initially justified trading with the fact that the company deals in sporting equipment. On top of this, shelf-stackers, warehouse workers and delivery drivers are overstretched and underpaid, and facing verbal abuse from customers and management alike.
The workplace environments of those on minimum wage are typically structured in ways that contradict the advice of Public Health England. A week into quarantine, employers are unwilling to provide the necessary amenities and the government will not force their hand. Countless public statements have been made about the kind of safeguarding measures that should now be in place, but action is yet to come. While plans are being made to protect the income of the self-employed, pundits’ probing of Boris Johnson fail even to mention this other hole in his lockdown policy. It is no wonder that many struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In call centres where thousands work together in large offices, facilities don’t allow staff to sit the minimum two meters apart from one another. On construction sites, builders can’t do their jobs safely without working in close contact, and the same goes for those in factories. Cleaners risk much higher exposure to the virus and are expected even to work in the homes of the infected. The impact on nurses, hospital receptionists, and care home staff – all grossly underpaid – needs little explanation.
Factors other than exposure in the workplace come into play too. Many on a low income cannot avoid public transport. They have mouths to feed and have elderly parents to care for; contracting and spreading COVID-19 is almost inevitable, a huge personal burden to carry. Many working-class people rent, some already may be behind on payments, and most can’t bank on the leniency of their landlords. Tenants were promised that evictions from social or private housing would be illegal for the duration of the pandemic – legislation released last week gives renters three months before eviction proceedings can be brought, rather than the usual two. Those who aren’t homeowners simply have to hope that this ordeal will be over by July. And despite the government’s unprecedented economic response, job security is not a surety. Some employers have already claimed ignorance of the government’s furlough programme. Who will make sure that companies aren’t still laying off their staff?
Rishi Sunak’s proposals have been generous, but they fail to safeguard those who will be hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis. The Universal Credit system has been condemned for its cruelty before, and an extra £20 a week for its claimants is barely a start, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Those who rely on the welfare system, or who earn minimum wage, most often live on a week-to-week basis without savings to fall back on. They can’t afford to stockpile or to bulk-buy. Individuals working from home have more time and greater means – after they have had their pick of new supermarket stock, essentials will be scarce or more expensive than they were before, and those still in their workplaces will struggle to eat.
The response to the coronavirus pandemic has made evident what was suspected by many: a government proponent of austerity does not have welfare at its core. It will be a tragedy if British society at large remains blind to this reality when all is said and done. Where was the Chancellor’s £30 billion when the NHS struggled through the winter, or when one in three children were living under the poverty line? The burden of keeping our society running has been placed on those least respected by it.
It isn’t productive to vilify Boris Johnson, or to assume the worst of his ministers, but now is the time to be critical of this government’s advisors. The comments made public in The Sunday Times this week, if true, should be enough to put Dominic Cummings’ career in the ground, but they almost certainly won’t, and this shouldn’t surprise us. Cummings stood firm after hiring a man who claimed that the social benefits of putting everyone on modafinil ‘are probably worth a dead kid once a year’. Now, as ever, unelected advisors to Number 10 gamble with our lives.
We should be very scared that overnight, Dominic Cummings purportedly became the most ardent advocate for lockdown. To beat coronavirus for good, when it resurfaces in the winter, we will have to rely on some level of protective immunity. Government advice to stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives has the pragmatic intention of ‘flattening the curve’ – but at whose expense? Those who are able to work from home or in otherwise safe conditions are far less likely to contract COVID-19. The economic and personal burdens placed on low-income workers are evident – and long before Monday’s measures were put into place, while it still held off on banning mass meetings, the government laid plans for new mortuaries and hospitals to be built. We can only hope that behind the curtain, working-class family units are not viewed as expendable.