ourEconomy: Opinion

After COVID-19, we need a new social guarantee

The most disadvantaged have borne the brunt of the pandemic. We need a 21st-century safety net based on people’s need, not their ability to pay

Maeve Cohen
24 March 2021, 2.15pm
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need to invest in social care
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Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

As the long-neglected ship of our public services collides with the colossal COVID-19 iceberg, the captains are throwing the women and children overboard.

The impact of the pandemic has taken a huge and very predictable toll on the most disadvantaged in society. In place of a social safety net, we’ve got a shrinking flotilla of leaky lifeboats. As the crisis continues to unfold, it becomes ever clearer that we need to construct secure foundations on which everyone can build a meaningful life.

More men have died from COVID-19 in the UK than women, but on nearly every other metric women have done worse: employment, mental health, unpaid care work, domestic abuse. People of colour have died at shockingly higher rates and are far more exposed to the health and economic risks associated with lockdown. For the young in society, the patchy provision of education, lack of internet and computer access, interrupted social development, soaring unemployment and child poverty all paint a bleak picture.

Now more than ever, we need a new way to ensure that everyone has access to life’s essentials – the things that everyone needs to participate actively in society. Affordable housing, healthcare, education, internet access, care when we are unable to support ourselves, and a guaranteed minimum income to buy food and other everyday necessities.

As the fifth richest nation in the world, the UK should be able to ensure that everyone has access to these basics. But it hasn’t. The crisis has shone a spotlight on both the failure of our current system to provide such fundamentals, and on the vastly unequal consequences of this failure.

To give a few examples: poor housing and overcrowding – conditions that have been linked to the spread of the virus – disproportionately affect ethnically minority communities. The lack of affordable rental properties affects women more than men, which leaves them particularly vulnerable when the temporary ban on evictions lifts. The pressures of home-schooling, lack of childcare and a growing unemployment crisis have reversed decades of (slow) progress in gender equality.

The shambolic handling of public education during the crisis has exacerbated the effects of a decade of decreasing funds for the education system. Incalculable damage has been done to children’s development, mental health and future life chances.

We need a new social guarantee whereby everyone can access the things they need to build a meaningful life

The cumulative damage to the NHS and wider social care systems wrought by a decade of austerity has already been extensively documented – and now we can see all too clearly how this has affected their ability to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. The efforts of the workforce within the NHS and beyond have saved countless lives and yet this overwhelmingly female and ethnic minority cohort has suffered tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

In the wake of this crisis, we need a new social guarantee whereby everyone can access the things they need to build a meaningful life. A system of universal basic services – based on need, not ability to pay and backed by a supportive state – could provide this.

This is a new agenda that seeks to establish ‘in kind’ support, provided collectively through democratic institutions. It means boosting and extending existing universal services (such as health and education), as well as expanding comprehensive provision into other areas – such as sustainable and low-cost transport and utilities, affordable housing, internet access and accessible social care and early years support.

A supportive state and local control

It’s not a return to the 1960s and top-down delivery – it’s a system fit for the 21st century. A system in which the state acts as a facilitator. To help thriving ecosystems of private firms, social enterprises, local authorities and community-led initiatives working collaboratively to deliver services that suit their communities. A supportive state that enables communication and collaboration between different service providers will allow for responsive, localised delivery, while at the same time ensuring there are no holes in provision.

Local control and delivery of services opens up space for more democratic engagement. This enables people to shape the economies in which they live, and creates opportunities for meaningful co-creation with service users. It also results in shorter supply chains, more local jobs and more opportunities to invest in low-carbon, socially useful industries such as social care and green energy generation.

A social guarantee to life’s essentials is a pragmatic way to support people throughout society to lead fulfilling lives, but especially those groups hardest hit by any shock to our economic and social system.

If we want a future of gender, racial and intergenerational equality after the destruction caused by COVID-19, as well as a sustainable world in which everyone can thrive, it is essential to ensure the provision of universal basic services for all.

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