In a letter sent to every UK household Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, ‘The Government will do whatever it takes to help you make ends meet and put food on the table.’ The ‘whatever it takes’ sentiment was repeated by Rishi Sunak. Sunak announced a £350bn package to help businesses cope with the lockdown. Matt Hancock wrote off £13bn of NHS debt.
While this support is welcome, it is not enough. Many people (the self-employed, gig economy and zero-hours contract workers, for example) are already slipping through the gaps with an estimated 5.6 million UK workers at risk of losing their jobs.
The NHS, a source of national pride, has seen a growing gap since 2014 between the number of nurses needed and what hospitals can afford to staff, with 43,000 missing roles in 2019. Austerity measures have seen the UK’s stockpile of protective equipment for healthcare workers fall in value by nearly 40% in the last six years.
Local knowledge and responses are crucial
Alongside monetary handouts, there are many things that only the government can provide. Covid-19 shows that during a crisis, the market cannot provide essentials such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. But where the government has been lagging, local community groups are working to fill in the gaps.
Where possible, local businesses have been quick to adapt their business models to continue to serve the needs of their customers. The NHS volunteers response was so great that the recruitment had to be paused after 750,000 people signed up. Mutual aid groups have been mobilising since before lockdown.
The Surbiton Coronavirus Community Response Group is one such group, filling in for the failures of central state. Like most Mutual Aid groups they help with shopping, urgent supplies, running errands, walking pets and social support via the phone. As it became clear that PPE was in short supply, the group has also begun coordinating homemade scrubs, hats, headbands and laundry equipment for key workers.
Local council workers are being redeployed to the frontline to help with benefits, care and mortuary services. They are housing homeless people, supporting those in dangerous living situations, clearing rubbish, offering tax-relief to local business and distributing food parcels. Local people are best placed to serve the needs of their communities. Because Covid-19 impacts people in different ways across age, gender, health, ethnicity, religion, education and place, local knowledge and responses are crucial.
The response to the NHS’s request for volunteers shows how willing many people are to help. This appetite is matched with a renewed and inclusive sense of community seen through the Mutual Aid groups. When public services and community come together service delivery can become more sustainable and effective.
‘Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere good will. They grow out of a shared struggle.’
Larry Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man
Covid-19 has laid bare the insecurity of livelihoods and impacts of divestment from public services in the UK
It is difficult to reimagine a new system when we are so embedded in the broken one. But the crisis allows us to examine the old, broken system that had already created vast inequalities.
The global crisis shows us that the scale for action is at the local level. Local communities are well placed to address their own needs. However, recent forms of devolution have not been matched with corresponding fiscal autonomy and investment in building local capacities and capabilities to be able to respond to the demands of increased responsibilities.
For successful recovery and future prosperity, we need to redesign public services. Full public provision of essential services, on top of the NHS, such as adult and child-care, education, housing, transport and communication, run at the local level by the people they serve would help secure livelihoods in the future.
Refocusing our economy to value this basic infrastructure would not only keep us healthy but also provide opportunities for flourishment through secure employment and enhanced capacities and capabilities. As Sunak remarked, ‘the single most important thing we can do for the health of our economy is to protect the health of people. It is not a case of choosing between the economy and public health.’
I have explored these ideas at length in a new IGP working paper: Towards Prosperity: Reinvigorating local economies through Universal Basic Services (2020)
Image credit: Bamagal on Unsplash
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