Like infectious diseases of the past, Covid-19 is a disease of poverty. If you map Covid prevalence with deprivation the results are stark. It has also exposed the ingrained inequalities across our society, and I say this as a former public health consultant with over 20 years’ experience rather than as an opposition MP.
But is it any wonder when people are living in overcrowded housing where few have a room to themselves, making it nigh impossible to self-isolate from the rest of the household, that the virus affects many if not everyone in that home?
Disabled people, who are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people, have fared worst from the pandemic. Between March and July, disabled people, including people with a health condition or impairment, accounted for almost 60% of all Covid deaths.
Key workers in health, care, transport, retail and other occupational settings are more likely to be on low incomes and living in overcrowded conditions. They haven’t been able to work from home like so many of us. The Chancellor and I could live comfortably if we had our incomes cut by a third, but for people on the lowest incomes it will be incredibly difficult. Are their landlords going to cut their rents? Is it going to be a choice of heating or eating? The Chancellor’s extended furlough scheme is just not good enough.
Unemployment is at its highest level in over three years with redundancies also at levels we haven’t seen since 2009 according to the Office for National Statistics. Young people have been disproportionately affected by the decline in employment with redundancies being focused on sectors such as hospitality, travel and recruitment – many of which are traditionally lower paid.
The inequalities that were already widening pre-Covid have been made worse by the Government’s mismanagement of this pandemic. It was unforgiveable that as a country we were so poorly prepared. It was always a question of when not if the next pandemic would strike; ignoring the 2016 recommendations from the Cygnus exercise will need to be judged at an Inquiry. But then a catalogue of errors has occurred since. We were too late to lockdown and too early to ease restrictions with the level of virus that was, and still is, circulating in the community. Given that we didn’t have a fully operational contact tracing system when the easing of lockdown restrictions was announced back in May, and that the World Health Organisation says this is a pre-requisite before the lifting of any restrictions, it was only a matter of time before we saw the virus levels rise again. The national Test and Trace programme operated by Serco and other private contractors has never been fit for purpose which has contributed to the issues we are facing now.
We need a short, national circuit breaker over the half term period to drive the virus down buying time to transfer the national test and trace programme to local public health teams. This must be accompanied by full resource allocation; currently less than 10% of resources committed by local authorities for existing local measures have been reimbursed by Government. This is unjustifiable and unsustainable. There is a real concern across communities in the North, including Oldham and Greater Manchester, that our areas will be ‘levelled down’ even further by the pandemic and the Government’s response to it.
In addition, the circuit break should be used to ensure the NHS and social care are fully prepared for winter pressures, as well as identifying vulnerable people for ‘supportive shielding’ – how to support people without severe and detrimental isolation. We also need simple, coherent messaging with local community engagement and effective monitoring and enforcement to tackle the minority who feel that rules are for other people.
Finally and vitally, we support all workers and businesses during any circuit break. I repeat that the Chancellor’s extended furlough scheme is not good enough. The fact that this week the Prime Minister wrongly stated that “nobody gets less than 93% of their current income” in Tier 3 areas when support is dependent on Universal Credit eligibility (which itself has a 5 week wait), is subject to a monthly cap and not open to the self-employed, shows just how out of touch he is.
We must look to our Nordic cousins and follow suit. Scandinavian countries already had measures in place to deal with pandemics and job subsidies; their more generous social security system is another reason why they have fared so much better during this pandemic than we have.
We are at war with this virus and the Treasury needs to recognise this.