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Now is not the time to sacrifice public health at the altar of ‘the economy’

The relationship between public health and economic health is symbiotic, not conflicting. Framing them as competing priorities is wrong and dangerous.

Christine Berry
12 June 2020, 8.30am
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the daily Coronavirus press conference inside 10 Downing Street on 10 June 2020.
Pippa Fowles/DPA/PA Images

As traffic returns to the roads and shops begin to reopen, life in the UK is now a disorienting mix of normality returning alongside a sense that things are still anything but normal.

Reactions are divided between those whose main feeling is relief, and those who feel overwhelming anxiety about a second spike. On both sides, this divide has often been framed as a tussle between the economy and health.

Progressives lambast the government for putting ‘the economy’ ahead of human lives, by prematurely easing lockdown while infection rates are still too high. Meanwhile, polling shows that people have been getting increasingly concerned about ‘the economy’ as the weeks go by, and for Conservative voters it now outstrips health as their top priority.

This week’s prediction from the OECD – that the UK will suffer the deepest recession of any developed economy, as well as the worst death rates – should finally put this framing to bed. It reinforces what should already have been obvious: the relationship between economic health and public health is symbiotic, not conflicting. Framing them as two competing priorities that need to be balanced is wrong, dangerous and a dead-end for progressives. This false dichotomy was used in March to justify delaying lockdown. As it turned out, the virus was coming for the economy whether we liked it or not: by letting it run riot, the UK has actually worsened the damage.

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In turn, the UK’s over-indebted, unequal and insecure economy has worsened the pandemic, forcing people to continue working when they should be isolating. The UK now seems to be caught in a death spiral whereby prolonged economic disruption is used to push for restrictions to be relaxed further (witness senior Tories lobbying for the 2m distancing rule to be ditched), which in turn will prolong the pandemic, which in turn will prolong the disruption.

To be on the side of human health is to be on the side of the economy. We never should have allowed these things to be pitted against each other, and we certainly shouldn’t allow it now.

the virus was coming for the economy whether we liked it or not: by letting it run riot, the UK has actually worsened the damage.

It’s true that the government has ruthlessly prioritised restarting activities where money changes hands. This is why you could let a cleaner into your home before your mother. It’s why, as of next week, many people will be able to visit Primark but not their parents. The fact that these rules seem nonsensical to people exposes the gulf between the demands of our economic system and the priorities of actual human beings. This is one of many things we should be questioning as we emerge from the crisis.

Nevertheless, it would be a profound mistake to treat the government’s reckless and premature reopening as a choice to “save the economy”. Its failure to control the spread of the virus in the community will mean persistent high levels of sickness absence. Even after shops and businesses are allowed to reopen, many people will choose to stay away out of fear for their safety. More workers will become unemployed and more businesses will struggle and fail.

The government knows this. In moving swiftly to unlock the economy, it is not minimising the long-term economic risks. Instead, it is pushing those risks back onto individuals – and thereby getting itself off the hook. In the early days of the pandemic, ministers repeatedly promised to do “whatever it takes” to support workers and businesses. But that promise has quickly unravelled.

It did not take long for Matt Hancock to start making tone-deaf noises about people needing to be “weaned off” the furlough scheme. Just as with the spread of the virus itself, there was a sense of rising panic as the government realised how drastically they had underestimated the spread of economic disruption. The Treasury initially introduced the furlough scheme under pressure to prevent mass lay-offs following the closure of pubs and restaurants. They clearly did not anticipate the breadth of industries across which workers would eventually be furloughed. Once reality dawned, they began to back away in panic from the precedent they had just set: that the state had a duty to support people through the crisis, regardless of the cost.

This is the context in which we must see the current wave of lockdown easing. Once the government is not expressly forbidding economic activity from taking place, it can and will attempt to extricate itself from responsibility for economic dislocation. The furlough scheme will be tapered off, even though many workers still face redundancy, because their employers are no longer ordered to remain closed. Businesses that have taken out ‘bounce back loans’ will struggle and fail as their custom fails to ‘bounce back’, but this will not be the government’s problem. As our recent work for IPPR showed, even at the height of its interventionism the government was still shunting significant risks onto those least able to bear them (most notably private renters and small businesses). This will only accelerate as lockdown eases.

Once the government is not expressly forbidding economic activity from taking place, it can and will attempt to extricate itself from responsibility for economic dislocation.

Almost everyone now faces agonising choices about how to trade off their own personal financial and health risks – or, worse, risky situations over which they have no meaningful choice. Is it safe to go back to local shops, and will they still be there in three months if I don’t? Is it safe to send my children back to school, and how am I supposed to keep working if I don’t? Should I reopen my business and risk my health, or keep it closed and risk bankruptcy?

The absence of an effective track and trace system means that we have little information with which to make these choices, and that almost all activities carry some level of risk. But since the choices are now technically available to us, we will increasingly be asked to take responsibility for the consequences.

The row about schools reopening is a case in point. The government insisted this was about educational inequalities, while its opponents said it was really about getting parents back to work. But the underlying story is one of risks and responsibilities being pushed onto individual parents. It quickly became apparent that up to half of all parents weren’t going to send their children back to school anyway – and that low-income parents were more likely to keep them at home, which could actually exacerbate inequalities. Since that was now to be their choice, employers were even less likely to offer flexibility – leaving many families facing severe financial and emotional strain as they tried to juggle work and childcare.

The government has now delayed the full reopening of primary schools, in a victory for parents and teachers who pushed back against this attempt to foist risks onto them. But it is still not supporting parents to deal with the resulting pressures. Meanwhile, nurseries are still reopening, offloading huge risks and costs onto the sector with little public outcry. Parents face dilemmas about whether to send their children back or try to sustain an increasingly impossible juggling act. Nurseries face decisions about whether and when to reopen, and whether to charge fees to parents who choose to keep their kids at home. Many fear they will not survive the year, as some parents pull their children out altogether (most nurseries are only financially viable at full capacity). Childcare workers – many of them migrants without recourse to public funds – have little choice but to return to work in a setting where infection risk is almost impossible to manage.

This is a microcosm of what is now happening across the economy. In this new phase of the crisis, as in the first phase, the risks do not fall on all equally. This is another reason we must resist the narrative of ‘saving the economy’. Just as with the government’s crisis interventions, we must ask: saving what, and for whom? Getting GDP ticking back up may benefit those who already win under our unfair economic system. It will not benefit the low-income workers, disproportionately women and BAME people, who are forced to put their health at risk because the government is no longer supporting them to stay at home. The invocation of ‘the economy’ as a unified entity obscures these imbalances of wealth and power.

Of course, it’s nothing new for a government to push ‘choices’ onto individuals while ignoring the power imbalances that constrain those choices. Decades of neoliberal policies have shunted risks onto individuals for everything from old age and sickness to unemployment – precisely the risks that the welfare state was founded to help us share. The pandemic has exposed this as a disaster, not only for those directly exposed, but for the whole of society. If precarious workers can’t afford to isolate, we all suffer, because our health is interdependent. If millions of workers are thrown out of their jobs, we all suffer, because our economy is interdependent too.

The invocation of ‘the economy’ as a unified entity obscures these imbalances of wealth and power.

Despite the rhetoric of “all in it together”, this realisation poses an existential threat to the Conservatives’ worldview. They are desperate to put it back in its box as quickly as possible. Having hastily patched up our tattered social safety net just enough to prevent outright mass destitution, they are now back-pedalling furiously away from the implications of their actions.

This is why comments like those of Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds, that social security should reflect “what you put in” to restore public trust, are so disappointing. Now is not the time to be on the back foot about social security. As Anna Dent recently put it:

“Labour should be building on this awareness to shape a new narrative about welfare, benefits and poverty. To do this they need to choose their language carefully, and be ambitious about building a new consensus about what benefits are for and how they should work.”

For a brief moment in March, the Conservatives were forced to accept the principle of collective risk-sharing: that looking after everyone benefits us all. The time to press this home is not in some indeterminate future “when the crisis is over” and we can start to think about building a better economy.

Indeed, the government’s incompetence means the crisis will almost certainly endure for a very long time. The time to insist on sharing the risks it poses – to hold the government to the promise of “whatever it takes” – is right now.

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