By Mubin Haq, CEO of the Standard Life Foundation
One year on from the first UK lockdown, government interventions to save the economy can be summed up in one phrase, or rather, one film title: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The best of the “good” is the rollout of the vaccine, which should allow the speedy reopening of the economy. In addition, furlough, for many, has been a lifesaver, protecting millions of jobs and shoring up incomes. This was much needed with nearly half of Scotland’s workers seeing their pay drop during the first lockdown.
By the end of 2020 nearly 10 million jobs had been furloughed costing £46 billion. Indeed, almost five million remain on furlough. Together with the nearly seven million self-employment grants, these income boosts ensured the hit to household incomes was greatly reduced.
Whilst the economy has been dealt a massive blow this has not so far translated into the very large job losses many feared. The job retention measures worked. Coupled with other support, such as the Scottish Child Payment, the temporary increase to Universal Credit, and payment holidays, these actions protected the livelihoods of millions. The problem arises once furlough ends. Only then will we see the full extent of the damage to the labour market.
The “bad” has many forms. Many remain excluded from furlough and self-employment support, especially those working in the gig-economy and in insecure jobs. This is not a small problem. We recently estimated nearly four million people were excluded, of which half had lost at least a third of their income. Unsurprisingly, many of those excluded from the support schemes have been left struglling to pay for food. Governments have had time to make the schemes more nuanced, to help those who slipped through the net, but in the main, chose not to do so.
Which brings us to the “ugly”. The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in our society. Most who faced the hardest financial challenges have been the same people who were already least able to keep afloat: lone parents, disabled people, black and minority ethnic groups, and younger people.
The poorest were unable to cut back on spending as much of their expenditure is on daily essentials. Coupled with income falls, they saw their bank balances reduce by nearly £200 a month during the pandemic, whilst those on higher incomes saw increases of nearly £400 a month.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. One year on from the beginning of the first lockdown it’s easy to look back and say what governments could have done differently. However, the evidence has been painfully clear for a long time. Our society was underprepared for a pandemic. Not just in a medical sense, but in the way key jobs are low-paid and under-valued, in the way inequalities have been increasing, and in the way our safety net has faced a decade of cuts.
Clapping for our carers was always going to be hollow unless followed up with improved pay and conditions. We can do much better, we want our society to be so much better, and research shows we are prepared to pay for it. The public support bold moves to fix our health and social care system. Not just minor tinkering but an overhaul which makes a real difference to our future living standards and financial security.
This article appeared in the Scotsman on 28/3/2021