British politics and Covid-19 is about to become a big argument about social class

The socio-economic divides of the lockdown have been sharpened by the Prime Minister's speech.

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The left-right divides of the battle against the novel coronavirus have been significantly sharpened by Boris Johnson, after a speech by the Prime Minister which unveiled the barebones of the government’s lockdown exit strategy, with the full document to be published tomorrow so it can be debated by MPs.

The big shifts? People will be able to sit and sunbathe in parks, with no restriction on how frequently they go outside. But more significantly, those who can’t work at home are now being urged to go to work – on foot, by bicycle or by car.

It’s not clear what form that exhortation will take, but it seems likely that it will be accompanied by a reduction in the scope of the government’s furlough scheme, withdrawing it from industries that cannot do remote working, with manufacturing and construction, the two sectors namechecked by the Prime Minister the first to see their access to the scheme curtailed.

It sharpens the already sharp socio-economic differences in the fight against Covid-19: people who can work from home are largely but not exclusively concentrated in the top of the income distribution, while those who can’t are largely but not wholly concentrated in the bottom.

That divide is a preview of the political debates that the government’s new approach means will increasingly define the daily pattern of politics: opting to open up the economy means that politics will become a fierce argument about who should have to work in unsafe conditions, and why.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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