What can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to build a fairer society?

I know that many of us are feeling a mixture of powerful emotions right now. Patrick Lonergan, our Campaigns Co-ordinator, has put pen to paper to voice some of his in this opinion piece for Woking Labour asking what we can learn from the pandemic to build a fairer society?

“This is a personal reflection of the current pandemic and what we need to do change things for the better in the future. It won’t give you lots of statistics, a quick google and you can find out the relevant stats. It’s also not the official view of Woking CLP, but I hope it will generate discussion on what the national party and local party should be campaigning on when Covid-19 permits.

I am a child of the 1950s, World War Two was still part of the national consciousness, so too was the Spirit of ‘45 when the welfare state was created. The NHS was in its infancy and Britain was rebuilding after the war. A decent home, a decent education and access to health services for all were seen as ideals for the common good by successive governments. My parents moved from a privately rented shared house with shared facilities to a council flat when I was four. Looking back, it was well-built – and a palace compared to our early accommodation. I grew up without any feeling of stigma attached to living in a council flat. I enjoyed a free education up to age 18 and I went on to study for a degree at a Polytechnic in the 1970s when tuition fees were non-existent. I was the first person in my family to obtain a degree.

When I hear politicians say this level of state support is all too expensive to fund, I ask how did the UK fund the NHS and commit to a massive housebuilding programme and education to 15 years after six years of war, when the country was bankrupt? (I acknowledge there were mistakes made with slum clearance and not everything was achieved, but the point is to state there was commitment to improving people’s lives, which I will refer to again below in the Marmot report 2020). The post war consensus lasted until 1979 when Thatcher came to power.

In the current crisis, Boris Johnson and the Tory government quickly adopted the slogan ‘Protect the NHS’. At the same time, their handling of Covid-19 has led to more than 31,587 deaths at the time of writing. I feel increasingly angry at the government’s response to Covid-19 and the lack of scrutiny by the media and many politicians, particularly at the time when the total number of daily deaths over Easter weekend, were higher than Italy & Spain, which only a few weeks ago we looked on in horror at the numbers of deaths being recorded.

Not that the government could have prevented all deaths, but I would argue that, after 10 years of austerity, the NHS was already on its knees and the failure to provide adequate PPE and to delay introducing testing is negligent. It has probably led to unnecessary deaths of frontline staff in the health service and other sectors like social care where numbers of deaths have been so high, and which were not publicly announced for some time. Whilst NHS staff have rightfully been seen in the forefront of the battle against Covid-19, other essential / key workers such as shop workers, care workers and transport workers have also worked daily, putting their lives at risk. At the time of writing, the government state that there have been 49 verified deaths of health workers from Covid-19 but the Guardian, for example, has recorded 165 deaths that have been reported in the news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/16/doctors-nurses-porters-volunteers-the-uk-health-workers-who-have-died-from-covid-19 (but as they say the true figure is likely to be higher because not all deaths will be in the public domain) and 29 transport workers have died (as of 23rd April https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/04/23/lond-a23.html ).

At the same time there have been welcome developments. The government has had to intervene in an unprecedented manner to prevent mass unemployment by offering companies up to 80% of staff wages for staff unable to work via the furlough scheme. Also, that they will spend ‘what it takes’ to finance the NHS in the crisis. They have bailed out local councils nationally, who have incurred extra costs because of Covid-19 to the tune of over £1 billion. These are sums of money spent normally only in time of wars.

At an individual level, there have been lots of fundraising efforts for the NHS and people responded in massive numbers to the call from the government for volunteers to support the NHS. At community level, the British public has mobilised very quickly via Mutual support groups to support vulnerable members of the community.

The narrative on Covid-19 has now changed to the view that society won’t return to normal for months and some commentators are saying measures will be in place until a vaccine is found, which they hope is about 12 -18 months away, depending on which article you read. In the next 12 months, large numbers may not go back to a job, large numbers will be claiming benefits for the first time, the vast majority of us are likely to be impacted with less income to spend.

At a time when we are all focused on the worldwide pandemic, the long-term economic impact is not at the forefront of most people’s minds, but we already know that there will be a deep recession. At an individual level, some of you may already have been affected through illness, loss of job or income, or most likely know someone affected.

How should the Labour Party respond nationally and locally when lockdown is lifted to prevent the widening of inequality and returning to the austerity policies of the past 10 years?

Here are some of my own ideas, which I think epitomise Labour values and the Spirit of 1945 for the 21st century. Currently, we are hearing the phrase ‘we are all in this together. I read a post by the comedian Frankie Boyle on Facebook recently, which is more accurate and sums up some of my feelings. He said, ‘there is no normal for us to go back to. People sleeping in the streets wasn’t normal, children living in poverty wasn’t normal … it’s time to start imagining something better.’

  1. The slogan ‘Protect the NHS’ to have any purposeful meaning post Covid-19, means that the heroic work of NHS staff is rewarded with a pay rise and a commitment to long-term funding reversing the funding cuts of the past 10 years. A medal is not enough. It’s not a war! Locally, there were proposals out for consultation about the local walk-in centre in Woking and 3 others in Surrey. Going forward the argument will need to be put that all 4 are retained in their revised form as Urgent Treatment Centres. Any cuts in provision of centres will mean longer traveling time to access health resources, which would be absurd given the view that pandemics are likely to be a more regular occurrence in the coming years.
  2. The other front-line workers in supermarkets and in social care, and elsewhere need to be rewarded too. Low skilled workers have been the most exposed to the virus – figures show around 77% of jobs that place workers at high risk of contracting COVID 19, are done by women. We need to make demands for the Living Wage for everyone, because, unlike the minimum wage, it is calculated to reflect the cost of living and a basket of goods. It is above the minimum wage and calculated at £9.30 outside London and £10.75 in London. Isn’t the minimum wage good enough? Definitely not! The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just released its annual report on poverty, which shows that around 14 million people are in poverty in the UK (more than 1 in 5 of the population) made up of 8 million working age adults, 4 million children and 2 million pensioners. In Woking, the average wage is higher than normal, but there are still many low paid workers in, for example, the service industries in retail and the cafes and restaurants. I moved here with my family in 2009, and in the past 10 years, have seen Woking Borough Council actively working to raise the profile of the town.
  3. We need to continue to foster the idea of mutual support in all our communities to protect the more vulnerable members of the community. The idea of social solidarity needs to be promoted. Are you active in your local community? We need people to come forward in preparation for the proposed elections in 2021 to stand as councillors and espouse Labour values in the community. Acts of individual kindness and decency are great in a crisis, but it is not enough in normal times. Community facilities, such as youth clubs have been decimated. The elderly and the mentally ill in the community were often isolated in the community pre Covid-19. Ideas at the community level need to be thought about to prevent this in the future. We also need to hold the council to account and that means demanding more transparency and community engagement, with, for example, citizens’ assemblies.
  4. A Living Wage is not just about pay, it is recognised in the recent publication by Professor John Marmot in his report on Health Inequalities 2020, he states – ‘the worsening of our health cannot be written off as the fault of individuals for living unhealthy lives. Their straitened circumstances and poor life chances are to blame. His institute’s work has established that healthy lives depend on early child development, education, employment and working conditions, an adequate income, and a healthy and sustainable community in which to live and work.’ I conclude from this, that 10 years of austerity, including insecure low paid work has a detrimental effect on people’s health, through stress and anxiety and as a result, the report states life expectancy has stalled in the UK for the first time since 1900.
  5. Decent housing for all can only be achieved by a commitment to build more public housing and build more affordable housing and end the insecurity and poor housing conditions of many people who pay high rents in the private sector and have little security. This can be better achieved by handing back powers to local authorities and regions to plan public housing in their areas. It is questionable if outsourcing social housing in Woking has been to the benefit of its tenants.
  6. Private Development: In Woking we have seen a massive increase in private development in the past 10 years, which is unaffordable to many people and in my opinion is a form of social cleansing, because it makes it very difficult for local people to remain in the area. The development in Sheerwater was pushed through despite a lot of local opposition. The proposals for the development of Woking FC in South Woking have also run into a lot of opposition. It is likely that the current developments in the town centre will experience difficulties due to an economic downturn and it is an opportunity to push for flats being made available for social / affordable housing with secure tenancies. Locally, this is an area where there needs to be a lot of campaigning to avoid Woking achieving the dubious distinction of becoming one of the most expensive places to live in the country.
  7. The scrapping of Universal Credit: There is no doubt that the systemic delay in paying benefits for 5 weeks leads to near destitution for many people and has led to a massive increase in the number of users of food banks. The Trussell Trust, one of the leading providers of the UK’s food banks, revealed there had been a 23% increase between 2018 -19, mainly as a result of delays in the payment of Universal Credit and the insecurities of the job market.
  8. Green Deal and Climate Change: When we come out of this pandemic, there will be many statistics out there, I am sure, on decreased pollution and improved air quality. We all know about air pollution in London and other big cities, but Woking is not meeting WHO standards on air quality either. Climate change has not gone away and I would argue needs to be treated globally with the same urgency as Covid-19 by the G20. Locally, public transport in Woking is very expensive and needs to be subsidised to encourage more people to use buses. There are numerous other ways that green policies can be implemented. The dominance of petrol driven cars has to end. I am sure many of you will have ideas on how Woking can improve on sustainability and how Woking BC can match its green rhetoric with more meaningful commitments.

I hope that reading this, chimes with some of your feelings at present and wishes for the future. Individual acts of kindness, philanthropy and decency are great in a crisis, but they are not sufficient to make our country more equal in the long term. Only radical progressive tax and social policies, along with devolved powers away from Westminster to the regions and local authorities can do that. Local activities are suspended at the moment, but please think about joining the ‘Woking Labour Family’ and actively campaigning on an issue you feel passionate about. In the meantime, if you have any feedback please email me at campaignspatrick@wokinglabour.org.