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23 March 2020

To achieve social distancing, the UK government needs to protect the self-employed

Fifteen per cent of workers currently lack the same income guarantees as others. 

By Stephen Bush

The Prime Minister and the public are under fire from the press. The public is charged with not following instructions to limit social contact, to venture out only for food and exercise, and to remain six feet apart from others while doing so. The Prime Minister is coming under pressure for his supposed reluctance to use the power of the state to kick us into shape – literally or figuratively, I’m not quite sure.

Is the criticism fair? To take Boris Johnson’s supposed reluctance to have us shut up indoors first. I think it’s true to say that the PM’s preference to deliver good news, rather than bad, is one contributor to the government’s confused messaging. That unhelpful line about turning the corner in 12 weeks is probably the biggest example of that. 

But the biggest single reason why the government could not at the present moment successfully enforce a lockdown is linked to some of the photos that have gone viral on Twitter of bustling markets still running this weekend: you cannot enforce a shutdown in a pandemic unless or until you have guaranteed the incomes of the people you are quarantining. Market traders are part of the 15 per cent of the country which has yet to have its income protected by the government: the self-employed, the main group left behind by Rishi Sunak’s statement last week. 

Its more complex to help the self-employed but there are a number of off-the-shelf options: removing the barriers and delays to claiming Universal Credit is a good solution for new businesses, while payments through the tax system with the same caps as proposed for furloughed workers are a good measure for established self-employed workers.  

As for the public in general: the greatest challenge people are facing is that government advice on what to do needs to be both ubiquitous and consistent and it is currently neither.

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That’s partly a failure of government and partly of the media. I was relieved to be able to spend my weekend listening to music radio but surely, as well as the news on the hour, there should be a detailed set of instructions about what social distancing entails. On my Facebook and Instagram, I can see adverts for Lenor detergent (useful), discounted air travel (not so much) and Muggerz menswear (doesn’t sound like my vibe, but you never know) but not a single one containing government advice. 

The reality, too, is that the reality conveyed in most public spaces is more complex than the one told by simple photographs. My nearest park, for instance, is the only open space for all but a handful of residents, not just those of us in long-established tower blocks, but most of the houses that surround the park which have long since been turned into flats. 

People were attempting to observe social distancing and many were turning back to walk elsewhere – but many of the groups of three or four people appearing to flout the rules are in fact people who live together. (Who have been instructed, in any case, to act as if they are one entity, to self-isolate if one falls sick and so on. It’s not clear whether these people should be walking together or separately and this is just one example of where government advice needs to be clearer and more explicit.) 

One simple solution may be for residents to have timed slots on different days depending on the first few letters of their surname or what have you, to ease the flow. People, for the most part, are trying to follow the rules – they just lack all the information to do so.

The reason why Tube trains are full is that Transport for London’s decision to reduce the number of services means that key workers and people whose bosses have yet to let them work from home, or to be put on furlough, are crowding into fewer and fewer trains. Now, national government looks set to make the same mistake with trains outside of London.  

There are hard limits on what you can do with enforcement, even outside of times like these, when every police officer enforcing a lockdown will be taken away from essential work elsewhere and risks becoming a vector of disease instead. So before we decide that the story of this weekend is of a reckless public and a soft Prime Minister, it may be worth having a go at providing the self-employed with the same income guarantees as the other 85 per cent of the public and to provide people with greater information on how they can follow government advice.

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