This article is part of a larger reflexion on the history and political construction of care in Europe in the European COST-Funded programme “Who care in Europe?”.
For many years I have studied welfare policies and social conditions in the UK from the late nineteenth century to the present. I have become increasingly concerned about the decline of the welfare state and the sharp rise in poverty since the 1980s and especially since 2010, as discussed in my recent book Divided Kingdom. A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present. I am not alone in being even more alarmed by the further increase in poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its precise extent and the ultimate impact are not yet clear because the pandemic continues, but here I will briefly discuss what we know about the social, economic and political impact of the pandemic in the UK to the present (February 2021).
The Impacts of Lockdown
The UK economy has never in modern history shut down so extensively for so long. The first “lockdown” covering the whole UK from March-June 2020 caused high unemployment especially among the lowest-paid, increasing poverty, use of food banks and homelessness. Nor have schools previously closed for so long, disadvantaging the education of children from deprived backgrounds especially seriously, followed by further disruptions after schools and universities temporarily reopened and COVID-19 spiked again, infecting teachers and students. Further lockdowns, including in Wales for two weeks in October-November 2020 and in England and Scotland through November, were limited to countries or regions of the UK and were slightly less wholesale, but still had serious social and economic effects. We are currently, since January 5th, in a third lockdown (including closure of schools) which is total in England for an uncertain length of time, with some variations in location and timing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Poverty before the Pandemic
Before the pandemic, poverty was already exceptionally high. It was due mainly to insecure employment and low pay in an under-regulated labour market. Employers evaded the minimum wage, employed workers on insecure contracts which did not guarantee specific hours or pay, or unfairly claimed that employees were self-employed, thus evading their obligations to pay sickness benefits, pension contributions and holiday pay; they were not penalized. Desperate people accepted such precarious work because they could not find better alternatives. 60% of those who were poor by the internationally recognized measure—incomes below 60% of the national median after deduction of housing costs—in 2018-2019 were in households including someone in work of this kind, according to research by respected independent institutions, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation. They found about 23% of the UK population, 33% of children, in poverty. Use of food banks, run by volunteers providing free food, rose fast before 2020, having been almost unheard of in Britain before the election of a succession of Conservative-controlled governments from 2010. In 2017-2018 the largest national food bank, the Trussell Trust, gave out 1.3m food parcels, but there were hundreds of small, local foodbanks and total food provision is unknown.
These governments severely cut welfare benefits, which were already declining since the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments of the 1980s. From 2013 they amalgamated several benefits into one, Universal Credit (UC), providing lower payments, increasing rather than reducing poverty. Another cause of poverty was the high cost of housing following the sale of council (public) housing at low prices by Mrs. Thatcher’s governments of the 1980s, without replacement by any successor government, along with the abolition of rent controls which had existed since 1915, thus much diminishing the supply of low-rent housing and raising private rents due to high demand, causing growing homelessness, with families sleeping in local authority hostels and single people sleeping on the streets in numbers which it is always hard to estimate.
A report on poverty in the UK by the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, in November 2018, following his tour of the UK, was an excoriating critique of the extent and causes of poverty, emphasizing the numbers and causes described above, expressing shock that the fifth largest economy in the world had one-fifth of its population in poverty and at “the shocking increase in food banks and major increases in homelessness and rough sleeping” due to “a harsh and uncaring ethos” on the part of government. The government ignored him. Even before COVID-19 the UK was among the most unequal societies in the OECD.
Poverty and the Pandemic
Pre-pandemic poverty was substantially due to the decline of the Welfare State since the 1980s. It became even more severe in the pandemic due to unemployment following the full or partial closure of businesses, highest among 16-24-year olds among whom it rose from 12.1% in January to March 2020 to 14.2% in September-November 2020. As the economic impact of the pandemic became evident, from March 2020 the government funded 80% of the normal wages of many people temporarily unemployed due to lockdown, expecting employers to pay the remaining 20%. But many did not, to at least 2 million lower-paid workers. 80% of an inadequate wage increased poverty. Also many lower-paid and self-employed workers were excluded from the scheme. UC payments were temporarily raised by £20 per week, suggesting its previous inadequacy, currently extended to the end of April 2021, with the government under strong pressure, including from its own Conservative party, to extend it. There were over 6 million new applicants for UC from March to October 2020, when 12 million adults and 6 million children were in households dependent upon it. The continuing inadequacy of support for those in need is suggested by the rise in food bank use by at least 180% from March-October 2020. There are no more recent statistics but usage remains very high and is unlikely to have fallen. Homelessness has also kept rising.
Black and Minority Ethnic communities, particularly those originating in Bangladesh and Pakistan, experience especially high levels of poverty and they have suffered exceptionally high death rates from COVID-19, mainly because they have low incomes, work in environments with poor protection against infection and often live in overcrowded housing. In December 2020, 34% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers earned so little that they and their families were in poverty, compared with the 25% average of White families. 25% of single-parent families (mostly headed by mothers) were in poverty.
Race inequalities are long-standing, but COVID-19 has made them more public, as it has exposed other socio-economic inequalities, including between regions. In-work poverty is currently greatest in London, least in Scotland. Poverty and COVID-19 death rates are much greater in parts of Northern England and of London than elsewhere. In England there have been growing tensions between central government and elected local authorities due to government imposition of restrictions without prior warning or negotiation about how best to meet needs, which local government better understands and can better assist than central government or private companies. This continues Conservative policy since the 1980s of reducing the powers and independence of local government and asserting central control.
COVID-19 exposes social problems
COVID-19 has raised public awareness of other social problems well-known to specialists, including the inadequacy of social care for older and disabled people in residential homes and their own homes, and the low pay of care workers. Also of cuts to National Health Service (NHS) funding and services, problems worsened by a shortage of doctors and nurses partly because many are immigrants from Europe who are leaving because of Brexit, while others resign due to exhaustion and overwork exacerbated by the staffing shortfall. These problems, plus prioritization of the large numbers of COVID-19 cases, have led to failure to treat other conditions including cancer and heart disease, further increasing deaths. COVID-19 has also exposed discrimination in the NHS against patients over age 60—again not new but not previously widely known—who have too often been denied treatment due to prioritization of younger people. The extent of poverty and poor health care in UK pre-COVID-19 was signified by its lower average life expectancy, and lower expectation of healthy life, than in all other EU countries, and the decline of both signifiers in recent years after rising steadily for decades. They have declined further due to the pandemic, with existing major inequalities between racial groups and between richer and poorer people growing further. Volunteers and family members give what help they can in all these situations, reminding us that family care and voluntary action have long been, and remain, enduring features of British culture. But they cannot solve such massive problems, and the need for family care of people who need specialist support, e.g., for dementia, is causing severe stress to carers.
The crisis has also made more visible high rents and the shortage of affordable housing and cuts to local services to young people and others. Also domestic violence, mental illness and suicide have increased due to household lockdown and financial stress. Disrupted education has exposed stark class differences between richer children who have greater access to computers and other devices for distance learning, more space and more parental support for home learning, than poorer children, with potentially harmful effects on the futures of poorer children.
Government COVID-19 policies
Many of these problems are the outcome of UK government policies, or lack of them. England was slower than many other countries to impose restrictions when the pandemic started, and again when it revived in autumn 2020, and it has lacked consistent policies. The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed different, often more effective, policies, which there is insufficient space to discuss. Due to public awareness of these differences, COVID-19 may speed the break-up of the UK, already signalled by resistance to Brexit outside England and resentment of its effects now that it has occurred, indicated by growing support for independence especially in Scotland.
Countries which went into lockdown earliest and have effective test-and-trace systems have had fewest COVID-19 victims. England has had very high rates of infection and now has the highest death-rate per head of population in the world, 169 per 100,000 by February 2 2021. The London government is seeking to repair the damage with an efficient system of vaccination. In 2020 it was perhaps distracted by the parallel negotiations over Brexit. But testing for the virus and tracing contacts of victims has been highly inefficient largely because it was allocated, at very high cost, to inexperienced private companies rather than to experienced local public health authorities, due to the government’s neoliberal preference for the private sector. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated in a speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October 2020, that this was “a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” Among many other contracts, the government granted the company Serco £410 million, without tendering or competition, to run a test-and-trace scheme of which it had no experience, which proved highly unsuccessful and could have been managed more successfully at much lower cost, by local public health departments, though these have suffered severe cuts due to government policy. The devolved governments have placed greater trust in the public sector with somewhat better outcomes. In England the efficient vaccination system is run by the National Health Service, and from February 2021 a more intensive testing service was introduced in areas experiencing new variants of the virus imported from overseas which is run by local public health departments, apparently highly efficiently. The government appears to have recognized the inadequacy of private sector provision for COVID-19 prevention. Whether this recognition will be extended to other fields remains to be seen.
Another reason for high infection rates even following testing and tracing is that people are expected to self-isolate after contact with COVID-19 victims. This prevents them from working and they should qualify for sickness benefits, but at £95.95 per week the UK provides the lowest sickness benefits in the OECD, and many choose to stay in work, risking sickness and infecting others, in order to protect their families from poverty. And, as suggested above, at least 2 million insecure, low-paid workers do not qualify for any sick pay.
In February 2021 it is unclear what plans the UK government has for the revival of the economy or for resolving long-term social problems which have been revealed and worsened by the pandemic, and by no means helped by the impact of Brexit which is raising prices of food and medication imported from the EU, among other things. The full impact of COVID-19 on the UK has yet to be seen.
Professor Emerita, University of London; Visiting Professor in History, Birkbeck College London
 Including Pat Thane, Foundations of the Welfare State, 2nd edition (London, Routledge,1996)
 Pat Thane, Divided Kingdom. A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present, (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 272-4.
 J.Cribb, A.N Keiller, and T.Waters , Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2018)
Adam Corlett, Diverse Outcomes. Living Standards by Ethnicity (London: Resolution Foundation, 2017).
 The Trussell Trust End of Year Stats 2020, https//www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/
 UN General Assembly. Human Rights Council. Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 23 April 2019.
 UK Parliament, House of Commons Library Research Briefing 26th January 2021, Youth Unemployment Statistics. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn05871/
 See note 4 above.
 Joseph Rowntree Foundation, UK Poverty 2020/21. The Leading Independent Report, 14 December 2020, p. 26
 Michael Marmot, et al., Build Back Fairer. The COVID-1919 Marmot Review, The Health Foundation December 2020.