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Boris Johnson has put more workers at increased risk – will the public approve?

The question that may increasingly define British politics. 

By Stephen Bush

The Prime Minister has unveiled a series of new measures as the Covid-19 lockdown continues in a different form. Guidance on when and how long you can go out for exercise has been dropped – and people in parks and other open spaces can linger outside for as long as they wish, provided they observe a two-metre difference. 

In England, people who can work at home are still being urged to do so – but people who can’t work from home, and whose businesses have not been shut down by specific government action, are being urged to return to work from Wednesday. Depending on both the level of infection and the country’s supplies of protective equipment, further easing will take place over the year, but a degree of social distancing will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Putting two and two together, it seems likely that reductions in the furlough scheme, particularly for manufacturing and construction, the two sectors namechecked in the Prime Minister’s speech, will follow in June. 

It means that the class dimensions of the lockdown will become more stark: people who are able to work from home will continue to do so, while people who can’t are being asked to take on a higher level of personal risk. In general, but not exclusively, those who can work from home are concentrated in the upper half of the income distribution, and in general, but not exclusively, those who can’t are concentrated in the bottom half. 

But as the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell explains, that doesn’t mean that the group being exhorted to go to work are themselves at the bottom of the income distribution. People at the bottom of the distribution have either lost their jobs or been furloughed – because pubs and restaurants have been closed – or are employed as key workers. 

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It is people, generally men, in the middle of the income distribution: “white van man” if you like. It’s also, in general, a group that voted Conservative in 2017 and 2019.   

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In this crisis, that NHS workers, people who work in food shops and delivery drivers have a higher level of personal risk than everyone else has been accepted, not quite without a murmur but with a broad level of consent. Are people going to broadly accept a higher level of risk for plumbers and builders? British politics may increasingly be defined by that question.