COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the globe. Over 300,000 people have now been infected across the world, with a reported 5,683 of those cases in the UK. However the actual number of people infected with the virus is expected to be a lot higher.
In the last few days, the UK government has brought in emergency legislation which gives ministers greater powers to help deal with the crisis.
The legislation covers five main areas including:
However, many have argued that the bill does not do enough to safeguard the most vulnerable in society and are calling for the government to implement more radical legislation.
So far, the UK government has stressed the importance of social distancing and self-isolation, forcing pubs, restaurants, shops and other social gathering locations to close. This has put severe pressure on millions of workers and business owners.
Speaking about this pressure at a press conference on 17 March Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the pandemic is both: “A public health emergency but also an economic emergency”. In response a package of £20bn has been allocated to deal with the crisis.
The package includes grants of £25,000 for small businesses in hospitality, leisure and retail sectors. It also sets aside £330 billion of government loan guarantees for struggling businesses.
On top of this, the government has pledged to cover 80% of worker wages up to £2,500, for those who have been forced to stop working.
To protect those in financially precarious positions Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick has also announced measures brought in to ban landlords in England and Wales from evicting tenants. Tenants will now be protected for the next three months.
The proposed legislation will be in the statute book for up to two years, with the possibility to extend or reduce the time limit by 6 months.
The question that remains is, is it enough? In short, no.
In the UK the percentage of workers living below the poverty line is already at 13%. In addition to this, a 2018 study found that 7 out of 10 workers are ‘chronically broke,’ and 41% of workers have less than £1000 in savings. This means without more stringent measures, millions will be even more financially vulnerable.
Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in the UK is currently at £94.25, while other countries in Europe pay at least twice as much. The Trades Union Congress (TUS) has noted that two million workers are not even eligible to receive this. Subsequently many will be unprotected if they are hit with the virus.
Moreover, a further 5 million workers who are registered as self employed are not currently eligible for SSP. The government has claimed that these workers will be awarded with a better benefits system, and that there will be a deferral of self-assessment tax requirements. However unions have urged the government to bring in further measures to support the self-employed.
Speaking to the BBC, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress said that the government’s current stance: “Will cause real hardship unless we get to grips with it”.
To ‘strengthen the safety net’ of those using Universal Credit, the allowance has been pushed to £1000 more a year. That’s an extra £20 a week. The Working Tax Credit basic element has been raised by the same amount. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said of these changes: “Together these measures will benefit over four million of our most vulnerable households.” However, there are real concerns that these measures just do not go far enough.
With governmental officials insisting on the importance of self-isolation, there is one issue that has been grossly underestimated. There are an estimated 320,000 homeless people in the UK and a reported 4000-5000 sleeping rough, although the actual figures are expected to be much higher.
This sector of society is already vulnerable to malnutrition and suffers from underlying health conditions. Rough sleepers are three times more likely to suffer from severe respiratory problems.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, has set aside £3.2m in emergency funding to implement a strategy to safeguard the homeless population. This strategy will involve repurposing thousands of empty hotels.
Both charities and local authorities are now putting in their efforts to transform disused hotels into temporary accommodation. However, there are fears that obtaining the some 45,000 units required is an incredibly difficult task and perhaps not the safest option.
Concerns have been raised that without more homeless people testing for COVID-19, this type of accommodation could be a hotbed for the virus to spread.
Speaking about this risk Matt Downie, Director of Policy for Crisis said: “If there is a report of an outbreak in a shelter then obviously it will have to shut, meaning we will see more people sleeping rough.”
Many charities who subsidise the funds for hostels have also expressed their concerns over loss of income, which potentially jeopardises existing forms of accommodation for homeless people.
There is no denying that COVID-19 is going to be catastrophic for the poor and most vulnerable in society. Dr Onkar Sahota, an NHS family practitioner, and member of the London Assembly has said: “Those in poverty are exposed because, in many cases, their underlying health will not be as good as wealthier members of the population.”
Services that have been safeguarding the most vulnerable in society are also now endangered. Food banks that keep 14 million afloat, for example, are at risk of closure due to lack of volunteers. This has arisen because many of the volunteers are either elderly or at high risk of coronavirus.
COVID-19 is revealing the cracks in a deeply flawed economic system and shining light on the shocking levels of poverty and inequality in the UK.
Hope rests on the implementation of a universal basic income, and one thing can be certain, there needs to be a complete reimagining of the current economic system and traditional welfare policies.