The Coronavirus pandemic highlights gaping holes in the UK’s social safety net

The government must ditch the personal responsibility agenda that dominates welfare policy. 

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Empty streets, vacant schools and closed offices. This is the worst-case scenario, if coronavirus continues to spread in the United Kingdom. For many this will be an inconvenience, but ultimately a manageable one. More people will work from home, use technology to communicate, and fall back on savings to stockpile essential goods.

But for others – particularly those in the so-called gig economy – this scenario is potentially devastating. They can’t work from home. They may have no savings. If they don't turn up to work, they don't get paid. And, unlike previous generations, this is increasingly the norm rather than the exception, with 4.7 million workers without a permanent contract.

The rise of the gig economy is part of what the Yale academic Professor Jacob Hacker has called the “great risk shift”. This has seen both businesses and government offload the risks associated with ill health, unemployment, becoming a parent, having a disability, and old age, onto the backs of individuals.

But, the creation of the gig economy, with companies replacing stable jobs with “flexible” contracts, is ultimately just one element of a much wider trend. Over recent decades, successive governments have cut spending and entitlements to collective welfare, from benefits to social care, and the result is that individuals and families either have to fend for themselves or go without the support they need.  

The effects of this can be seen all around us. It is why personal debt has skyrocketed, with insolvencies back up to levels last seen after the 2007/8 global financial crash. It is the primary cause of our homelessness crisis, with 169 evictions across the UK every day.

It has contributed to rising poverty and the national shame of over a million people reliant on foodbanks to survive. And, its why millions of older people every day are going without the care they desperately need.

It would be easy to conclude that this shift was simply a pragmatic response to the global financial crisis. But the truth is that it’s part of much longer and deeper ideological crusade that has seen welfare policy increasingly shaped by the concept of personal responsibility. Proponents claim that if you are out of a job or can’t put food on the table it is the result of your personal failings – and that you alone should face the consequences.

But this has always been a flawed argument. We are intimately bound together as individuals by the structural forces that shape our lives. Coronavirus is an obvious example of this: We are all at risk no-matter what choices we make (though we can lower it by washing our hands). But it is far from the only one. Global economic crises, structural shifts in the economy and environmental disasters (all of which appear to be looming) highlight that we are bound together as a species.

This implies that holding individuals entirely accountable for the circumstances they find themselves in is both unfair and immoral. The case for sharing risk across society is also economic. Notably, social risk-pooling is more efficient and effective than the alternative. The larger the group of people a risk is shared over, the lower the premiums everyone has to pay to cover it. The NHS is an example of this: we spend less than comparable private health insurance systems abroad, without correspondingly worse outcomes.

The truth is that if coronavirus continues to spread across the UK, there is no doubt it will be a public health emergency. It may well also precipitate an economic emergency, but it needn’t be a social crisis as well. The government must ditch the personal responsibility agenda that has dominated welfare policy for so long and take bold action to address the gaping holes in our social safety net. This must start by giving people working in the “gig economy” their basic rights. Indeed, stopping the spread of the virus may depend on it.

Harry Quilter-Pinner is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

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