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Back in March, the government promised to do “whatever it takes” to help people and businesses manage during the coronavirus crisis. A furlough scheme would pay 80% of wages of workers in companies forced to close; there would be help for the self-employed; and universal credit was lifted by £20 a week, a welcome recognition that the benefit was too low. These schemes were to be replaced by less generous payments or nothing at all because it was imagined that the virus would be in retreat.
However, Covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death rates are climbing higher. There is a clear political, economic and moral case for continuing support at the present levels as new restrictions are imposed across the UK and the country faces an economic contraction that is forecast to see unemployment soar. Dame Louise Casey, who has worked for successive governments since the Blair administration on poverty, rightly warned that people were facing “destitution” because the government was withdrawing vital support for families at the very moment when it is needed most.
It is not just that it is cutting the level of payment, but, as Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation pointed out, “not enough people will get the support at all”. Curbing liberties so that coronavirus’ spread can be checked is the right thing for the government to do – but only if it helps to cushion the blow. This is why northern leaders won’t accept a “punishing lockdown” without “proper support” for the people and businesses affected.
This is ideological for Boris Johnson. During the pandemic, about 1 million pupils signed up for free school meals, with one in five schoolchildren now in receipt of such help. While Wales heeded footballer Marcus Rashford’s call to feed poor children over the school holidays, in England Mr Johnson did not. It may be parents’ responsibility to feed their children, but how can they do so when the government’s actions have cost them their income?
Mr Johnson says that he doesn’t want Britons to rely on “Uncle Sugar the taxpayer’’ and get addicted to the sweet rush of a compassionate response. Rather, he sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to ready the country for “a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it”.
The prime minister made these comments during his conference speech last week, despite having been warned that a short national shutdown – and therefore extra assistance – would be needed to halt the spread of Covid-19. Public spending is popular with voters. Mr Johnson is reluctant to give anything that might be difficult to take back. He knows joblessness will be a problem in the coming year and he wants this couched as a problem of welfare dependence rather than a deficiency of government job support and creation.
The fundamental mistake of free marketeers like Mr Johnson is that, in their philosophy, profit is the only criteria for deciding whether an activity is of benefit to the country. Workers let go by loss-making businesses, they think, will always have more profitable alternative employment waiting for them. This is not even true in normal times, let alone during a pandemic. Mr Johnson is trying to gaslight communities into accepting that mass unemployment, rising underemployment and poverty alleviation is not the responsibility of the state. Yet it is the government that is, for understandable public health reasons, constraining employment opportunities and forcing individuals into involuntary unemployment. The country needs a prime minister who can step in to protect jobs and income rather than blaming a recession made in Downing Street on the individual.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on Johnson’s poor taste: no buzz from compassion’s sugar rush | Coronavirus