The government not only needs to provide help to the people of Britain but a vision of hope too, says ANDREW ADONIS.
In a matter of hours parliament this week gave the government powers most of us thought would only be granted in wartime. Maybe not even then: in the last war people were allowed to move about fairly freely.
It is all necessary to prevent this modern plague. Yet probably as many people will suffer, even die, from poverty, loneliness and desperation as from the virus in the months ahead.
What they need above all is help and hope. The help needs to be immediate, but the hope as to what will happen to life after lockdown is just as important. It is not enough to preach survival. We need to heed the Book of Proverbs: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’
Here are three ways to offer hope. First, education. A lot of students are going to miss a lot of education. It is some consolation if they are granted grades and qualifications by default, but notional skills without the substance of learning behind them won’t butter many parsnips hereafter, and students from poor families, without resources to study at home, are especially vulnerable.
Teachers will doubtless do their best online, and there is likely to be a guarantee that offers of university and sixth form places for next year will be honoured even if GCSE and A-level grades are in doubt. But we should go further and allow all students the right to repeat a year with no fees, particularly those in their final year of university, school or college, and in their GCSE year. If that means larger classes and hiring more teachers and accommodation, so be it. And if it means vice-chancellors and their management teams paying themselves less from the windfall they have been making from £9,000-a-year fees, that will be no loss.
Second, the ‘gig economy’. Before the virus struck there were an estimated five million workers in the UK in this sector, from Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders to online courier, care and cleaning companies. Gig work is drying up fast, exacerbating the unfairness and deprivation those providing these services already suffer because they are deemed to be self-employed and denied most basic employments rights, including proper sick pay, holiday pay and the minimum wage calculated on a fair basis related to the hours actually on the job.
A series of legal cases are passing through the courts to establish whether gig workers are entitled to employment rights. Despite warm words, the government has refused to intervene and trade unions are mostly non-existent in these sectors. Nothing would do more to instil security and fairness in society than to change the law to give all gig employees the employment rights the rest of us take for granted. They should be promised now.
Third, housing. At the end of the First World War prime minister Lloyd George famously said there would be ‘homes fit for heroes,’ and bitter disillusion ensued when he failed to honour that pledge. It was 50 years before most of the worst slums were replaced with council housing.
Broken promises are here again. Most of the low paid and young adults are now in private rented housing. They were promised there would be no evictions during this crisis, although this simply highlights their acute vulnerability in the first place. Yet it looks as if they will simply be liable to eviction afterwards if they can’t keep up with the rent.
The bigger issue is to give people decent housing, not just any housing. There is a national target of 300,000 new homes a year, with a high proportion for social rent. Last year only 161,000 were built, a mere one per cent more than in 2018, and few of those were for social rent.
In King Lear, written by Shakespeare in a 17th century pandemic (the 1605 plague), Edmund tells Lear on the blasted heath: ‘When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes.’ The woes for many of our fellow citizens are inescapable foes. We need – now – to make the promise of a better future.