FROM FEAR TO HOPE: CHARTING A PATH OUT OF THE PANDEMIC
It is a privilege to be asked to deliver this year’s Bevan lecture. It is a great shame that I cannot do so in person, but like so many people and organisations in 2020 the Society has had to adapt to the constraints of Coronavirus. It is all the more of a privilege to be asked to deliver the lecture at the same time as the relaunch of Bevan’s great book, In Place of Fear. The book was astonishingly popular when it was published in 1952. Nearly sixty years on, its provision of a ‘a map identifying the route to a better society’, as Nick Thomas-Symonds MP puts it in his introduction to the book, Bevan’s words are still relevant today.
The task of identifying the route to a better society is also the mission of the charity I am proud to have led for some 18 years – the Bevan Foundation. As a non-political organisation, we do not and cannot share Bevan’s political affiliation. But we do share his unswerving aim of ending poverty and inequality, and to doing so through the redistribution of wealth and power. I also like to think that we share the sometimes-forgotten value that Nick Thomas-Symonds identifies in Nye Bevan’s book – compassion. The social and economic transformation that we are trying to achieve is not about political theory. It should lead to real, tangible improvements in people’s lives – food on the table and a safe, secure home – not just ticks in a policy-maker’s box.
In the last year – or more precisely the last nine months – the question of how to create a better society has once again risen to the fore. There is much talk of renewal and resetting rather than mere recovery, with all kinds of think tanks producing ideas for change. Some are good, some are not. But I will come back to those ideas in a moment.
It is worth casting our minds back to March, when life changed almost overnight. Schools closed, hospital appointments were cancelled, shops were shuttered and desks cleared. Nobody knew when we would emerge from lockdown or the shape that our society and economy would be in when we did so. All we could do – and did do – was take to the security of our homes and watch the terrible, mounting death toll and case rates on our TVs.
Very quickly, the virus exposed deep fault lines running through almost every aspect of life. Not only are the fault lines more visible, but as the pandemic has continued, it’s made many of them worse. Cruelly, the death toll has been highest amongst people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background, reflecting both their likelihood of having high-risk occupations and their poorer living conditions. The virus has also hit people in deprived communities hard, reflecting both the higher prevalence of underlying health conditions amongst people on low incomes and their greater likelihood of having jobs that increase the risk of contracting Coronavirus. People in care homes – usually older or disabled – have suffered disproportionately and arguably avoidably from the virus. Not only has the death toll been far greater amongst people in residential care than in the general population, but they have also been denied visits from family and friends.
Just as the virus itself has exploited the weaknesses in society, so too has the social and economic impact been uneven. Economically, the areas that were already struggling have seen the biggest job losses to date and are at the greatest risk of more job losses and business closures to come. With unemployment now forecast to double in the next year, many of our less prosperous places can anticipate more than one in ten of the workforce being out of work in the near future.
The Job Retention Scheme was a lifeline in that it prevented mass job loss, at least in the short term. But there is a bitter twist even here. Higher-paid workers typically continued to receive their usual pay in full, despite not working. Yet low-paid workers did not, with most receiving only 80 per cent of their earnings, effectively a pay cut on top of already-low wages.
As schools went online, it was children from low-income families who were least likely to have the digital devices, sufficient data and family support to enable them to learn at home. We have heard of families where two children were trying to do their homework on their mother’s mobile phone. As schools return, children who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to be absent than other children – in some deprived parts of Wales one in five children is not attending school.
The instruction to ‘stay home’ was experienced very differently, depending on housing and income. People in the worst housing didn’t have space for a home office or school, and at best were getting by on sofas and kitchen tables. A significant number of people don’t have access to a garden or nearby public open space: they couldn’t even get fresh air let alone enjoy socially-distanced gatherings of friends and family under gazebos and patio heaters.
All these inequalities and more were there before the pandemic, but lockdown measures brought them into view and made some much, much worse.
So what about the map to a better future?
Certainly, early talk about rapid recovery and bounce back now looks wildly optimistic. Given the novelty and rapid spread of the virus, the Prime Minister’s promise to “send the virus packing” was never achievable, nor were economists’ expectations of a V-shaped recovery realistic. As I write this, news has just broken of several potentially successful vaccines. But even if they are rolled out quickly, it may be many, many months before people are able to work, socialise and travel without restrictions and many years before the economy recovers.
Given the likelihood of a long haul ahead, just what should be done to reset, renew and rebuild Wales? Where is a map of equal power to Bevan’s In Place of Fear?
Well, despite the difficulties of the last nine months, some seeds of change have been sown. They need careful nurturing to sprout and grow, but they are there. I would like to outline a few of them, although this is not so much a map as a few signposts.
First, the economy. The pandemic revealed just what we really need in our society and what we can do without. It was as if we had forgotten about the basics of life – food, water, shelter, medicines and health care, and decent broadband. And while hairdressers, cafes and gyms were missed, there was a growing realisation that ultimately we can live without them.
Rebuilding the economy should therefore focus on what really matters – the reliable and affordable supply of essentials. This is much more than the flawed concept of the foundational economy, not least because a new economy must include the manufacturing of essentials and their supply chains, not just their sale. It is about ensuring the secure and equitable distribution of essentials, produced to a high standard. This may well mean the re-shoring of some production, possible changes from private to public ownership and shorter, more resilient supply chains.
There is an added advantage from focusing on essential goods. Their production can not only meet needs but also create jobs. The Wales TUC estimates that investment in new, affordable homes and fitting energy saving measures to existing homes would create 27,000 jobs in construction. Similarly, investment in public transport and electric vehicles would create 18,000 jobs, while 5,000 jobs could be created in land, forestry, and agriculture improvements. These jobs are all the more important as the economy adjusts to Brexit, increased automation and post-pandemic life.
These economic changes are often described as ‘a green new deal’. But there is scope to go even further – the Bevan Foundation is arguing that we need a ‘social new deal’. A social new deal provides essential services, including the NHS and education of course. But a social new deal would also meet urgent needs in other areas of life, notably how we care for children and how we look after people as they age and become frail. For understandable reasons, childcare and social care were not part of the post-war revolution that brought us the NHS and our education system. As a result, childcare and social care are today delivered by a patchwork of public and private organisations, and are paid for by a mix of the state and individual payments. There are big gaps in provision and big questions about quality that need to be answered.
A new deal to provide better care for children and older people could transform family life and children’s prospects. It could also create thousands of jobs to complement those created in the construction and transport sectors advocated by Wales TUC.
The second seed of change is in the new appreciation for essential workers brought by the pandemic. The weekly ritual of clapping for carers was more than just a chance to see neighbours – it was a genuinely heartfelt thankyou for health and care workers who were risking their lives through their jobs. The vital contribution of shop workers, refuse collectors and food delivery drivers was also recognised. Many people hoped that this new appreciation might result in an improvement in essential workers’ pay and conditions. Sadly, memories are short and the UK Government’s November 2020 spending review has effectively meant a real-terms pay cut for almost all public sector workers, while the uplift in the National Living Wage barely keeps pace with inflation.
Essential workers must be paid the real Living Wage as a minimum, coupled with decent sick pay and holidays, and experience no bias or discrimination in recruitment and promotion. They must have a voice, through trades unions, and be protected against harm from their working environment. It is interesting that unions enjoyed a surge in membership in the early days of lockdown as workers suffered the lack of the most basic protection against Covid-19 infection in some workplaces and others were suddenly furloughed.
Third, the pandemic also revealed the incredible importance of public services. Never has so much cash been spent on the NHS in its history, as near-blank cheques were written to enable the creation of Nightingale hospitals, the purchase of new ventilators and research into vaccines. All criticism of public sector waste, red tape and inefficiency vanished. The NHS has long been held dear by the British public, but the pandemic has arguably ratcheted-up public support even further.
Other public services stepped up to the challenge too. Within a matter of weeks, homeless people were provided with emergency accommodation. Food parcels were delivered to thousands of people who were extremely clinically vulnerable to Covid-19. Trains and buses were effectively brought into public ownership to keep them running. Things that have long been said to be impossible, such as ending street homelessness, suddenly happened. There is unfortunately rather less affection for local authorities than for hospitals, but they were no less important.
As Wales and the UK emerge from the pandemic, public services should be put at the centre of renewal. This will involve rethinking the role of local government, which has too often become remote from the communities it is meant to serve. Authorities have fallen into the trap of being the deliverers and regulators of services rather than the local leaders they could and should be. The NHS itself should not be immune from reform, with a much greater emphasis on good access to good quality primary care instead of the current obsession with hospital provision. And our schools need to reinvent themselves as the enablers of child and adolescent development and learning, in partnership with the wider community, rather than being the dispensers of knowledge.
Fourth, the pandemic revealed the critical importance of the social security system. Long-reviled for supporting ‘welfare scroungers’, the influx of new claimants prompted a temporary increase of £20 a week in Universal Credit and an easing of restrictions on Local Housing Allowance. A new form of state support also emerged in the form of the Job Retention Scheme, providing an earnings-related income for people who were temporarily not working. This was presented as anything but an arm of social security, although the difference is mainly in its generosity and lower conditionality than in its principles.
Reforming the social security system is vital. The £20 a week uplift must be maintained and it should be extended to other benefits. The punitive five week wait for a first payment should be stopped. And help with housing costs must be reformed, with Local Housing Allowance set at a reasonable level and the benefit cap increased.
A raft of other grants, allowances and schemes that complement the social security system, such as free school meals, Educational Maintenance Allowance, Council Tax Reduction Scheme and Discretionary Assistance Fund, also came into the spotlight. The footballer Marcus Rashford reminded everyone how much free school meals matter and shamed the UK Government into providing meals in the holidays in England (they had already been agreed in Wales and Scotland). With much less media coverage, the Welsh Government increased the Discretionary Assistance Fund and encouraged take-up of its other schemes.
So important are these various schemes that total expenditure is around £400 million a year – matching the Department for Work and Pensions’ spending on Universal Credit and Job Seekers’ Allowance in Wales. But important though these schemes are, they have different eligibility criteria, different application processes and variable decision-making procedures. They have also been ignored for years: Educational Maintenance Allowance has not been uprated since the mid-2000s reducing its value by one third, while the free school meal allowance is often not enough for a secondary school child to buy a full school lunch.
The Bevan Foundation is arguing that organising these various schemes into a coherent Welsh Benefits System, with common criteria, a simple and single application process, extended eligibility and an increase in the value of help, would make life for many people on low incomes easier and better.
And the last seed of change that I want to highlight was the experience of collectivism. The early days of lockdown prompted an outpouring of what was sometimes described as community spirit or mutual aid. People looked in on neighbours, did shopping and collected medicines, and organised street bingo in Blaenau Gwent and chamber concerts in Cardiff. To be outside the local What’s App group was to be excluded from pandemic life.
But real though that experience was, it had its limits. For everyone enjoying a new sense of neighbourliness, there were others living in extreme isolation. People who were already lonely found themselves cut off from everyday interactions. Those who were advised to shield did not even dare mix with others in their home let alone go outside. The effect on people’s mental health and well-being has been huge. And not everyone felt that they should look out for their neighbours as well as themselves – the people leaving supermarkets with trolley-loads of toilet roll or pasta or those who reported neighbours to the police for minor breaches of Covid regulations did not have the common good in mind.
At a webinar organised by the Bevan Foundation in July, Julia Unwin, former Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and past chair of the Inquiry into Civil Society Futures, argued that we should be talking about social solidarity rather than the slippery concept of community. Social solidarity is more than the shared sense of place, although place is important, and is found in workplaces, clubs, protest groups and groups of friends. It is the deep feeling of connection with others, a sense of shared interest and a willingness to look out for each other. That concern for our fellow citizens is, as Nick Thomas-Symonds reminds us in his introduction to In Place of Fear, the foundation of our civilised society and the ‘most significant quality of a civilized human being’. It should be recognised, celebrated and fostered.
I began by saying that the strength of In Place of Fear was that, in Thomas-Symonds’ words, it was a map identifying the route to a better society. Is there an equivalent map showing the way to a better post-pandemic world? I don’t think there is, at least not yet. But I do think we can see some of the pointers to a better future in the experience of the pandemic – the seeds of change. They lie in a reformed economy, extended and enhanced public services, a comprehensive and effective social security safety net, and a greater sense of solidarity and common good. In many ways, the route is not that different to the one Nye Bevan mapped out: just adapted for new times.
Above all, as we chart our course, we must hold onto the quality that Nick Thomas-Symonds says is at the heart of Bevan’s text – namely compassion. Thomas-Symonds reminds us that Bevan quotes from Dylan Thomas’s poem, ‘A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London’: “After the first death, there is no other”. The daily death toll from Coronavirus must never numb us to the individual lives lost as a result of the virus, made all the worse by the divisions in society. We should all make ending poverty and inequality the destination on our map.
Dr Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation, one of Wales’ leading think tanks which works to end inequality, injustice and poverty. The Bevan Society is grateful to Unison for its support of the 2020 Lecture.