Of this site’s regular columnists, three are journalists, three work in communications and research, three are MPs, three work for think-tanks, one is a peer, one a Mayor and one a former MP.
One of the MPs worked for a think-tank and as a SpAd; another worked variously in public affairs, for MPs and sold hotel memberships; another was a SpAd. The peer was a banker, the former MP is a solicitor and the Mayor was managing director of a major department store brand.
The core ConservativeHome team are all journalists. Together, that makes up a similar offering to the national and regional papers, and there is a rough resemblance to the news set-up in TV and radio. This totality has given a decisive slant to the way in which the pandemic is reported.
Journalists have felt the effects of Coronavirus. Some have died, some have been very ill, some have lost their jobs. There has been a tightenening of belts.
But our story is in no way exceptional. And many journalists will have had the option of working from home instead of travelling to work, like those who work for think-tanks or in communications. More MPs have found themselves similarly placed over time, especially during the periods of tighter restrictions and lockdown.
Some will swoop on the latter’s arrangements and say that the private sector has been exposed to the brunt of the virus while the public sector has been protected. (Though MPs, of course, are not public sector workers. Indeed, being an MP is not, strictly speaking, a job at all.)
In terms of the economic effects, that claim is correct. The modelling in “Poverty during the Covid-19 Crisis”, an analysis by the Legatum Institute, assumes baldly that “all job losses and use of furlough takes place in the private sector”.
The report also finds that those hardest hit by wage reductions and falling earnings, as well as furloughing and unemployment “have been young workers, those in relatively low-paying employment and those working in sectors such as hospitality and retail”.
In terms of exposure to the virus itself, the record will be more mixed. Schools have been shut during two of the three lockdowns. It is a statement of the obvious that hospitals have not. Nurses and doctors stay on on the front line while heads and teachers are sent home.
Local planning officers won’t usually need, in current circumstances, to travel to local council offices. Meanwhile, getting out and about is what police offices, firefighters and members of the armed forces are required to do – the latter in the challenging context of rolling out the vaccines.
No, perhaps the most telling story of difference during the Coronavirus has not been between those who work in the public and private sectors, but between those who work with their hands and with their brains. Obviously, that’s a simplification: many people, like surgeons, do both. However, the point holds.
Hospital support assistants and care home workers, train drivers and ambulance crew – all are exposed to the virus, whichever sector they work in. Though it is nonetheless true that the bulk of those jobs employing those who work with their hands are private sector workers.
Look at the table for the biggest declines in sector by payroll, which leads with 300,000 job losses in hospitality, 160,00 in retail, 115,000 in manufacturing. These are bar staff, shopworkers, waiters, factory workers, hairdressers, baggage handlers, pub workers, van drivers, brewers – in short, a big slice of the “just about managing”.
“Two nations,” Disraeli wrote in Sybil, “the rich and the poor”. That difference is written deeply into our political culture – though its persistence owes less to Disraeli than to another Victorian, Karl Marx; not to mention a strand in the Judeo-Christian tradition stretching back to the Old Testament prophets.
But it looks as we write that the tale of the Coronavirus in Britain so far is different. Since that story is continuing, judgements must be provisional. And measuring poverty is a tricky business. (For example, the rise of in-work poverty is partly a consequence of pensioners becoming relatively better-off.)
Nonetheless, the Legatum Report finds that “poverty has reduced among some groups…this is because many non-working families have seen their benefits increase, meaning that they are less likely to be in poverty than would have been the case in the absence of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Legatum projects “a reduction of 100,000 in poverty in lone-parent families and a reduction of 170,000 in poverty in workless families in Winter 2020, compared to the case where the Covid-19 crisis and resulting increases to benefit generosity had not happened”.
Now, the poorest still remain the poorest, of course – a judgement that takes one into the world of quintiles and deciles, of relative and absolute poverty, and of facts that one might not expect, such as that those with the lowest incomes do not always have the lowest living standards.
But the tale of the virus so far is one of manual workers, younger people, women, and a section of the self-employed being disproportionately affected in economic terms (though not, in general terms, ethnic minority members, according to Raghib Ali, who has argued on this site that “there is now no overall ‘White privilege’ in health or education”).
If it is meaningful to talk of Two Nations at all, then the Two Nations of Covid, in economic rather than healthcare tems, have been not so much the rich and the poor as those who work with their hands and those who don’t. The brunt of unemployment, furloughing, pay cuts and lower earnings has fallen on the former.
The poorest will by and large have more cramped accomodation and less access to green space than those on the next rung up. But those on the higher rungs still will be even better off. They can more easily shift to working at home. They are less likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed.
Their children will tend to be in better schools, and so better placed to cope with the effects of school closures. The parents will be less likely to suffer from mental illness or domestic abuse. We don’t suggest for a moment that lockdown is easy for anyone (bar the determinedly misanthropic). But it’s less hard for some than others.
Which takes us back to where we started. Better-off journalists will be relatively well protected from the worst effects of Covid. And they speak more loudly in Britain’s public conversation – if we can be a bit self-critical for a moment – than those bar staff, shopworkers, waiters, factory workers, and so on.
To say so is not to paint a picture of a country of anti-lockdown manual workers silenced by pro-lockdown media elites. For after all, the polls show broad support for shutdowns. Rather, it’s to suggest that, when the virus eventually recedes, that first group of voters will demand its place in the sun.
Philippa Stroud, Legatum’s Chief Executive, wrote recently on this site that, post-pandemic, “the Government could decide to focus on those who are moving in and out of poverty and close to the labour market (the top seven million). That is in effect what the £20 uplift has done in Universal Credit”
“Or it could decide to focus energy and resources on those in deep poverty.” The choice is the same that has haunted Conservative leaders for at least 15 years.
Should the Government concentrate its efforts during the years to come on “the vulnerable”, who so preoccupied the leaderships of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron, or on the “just about managing” of Theresa May Mark One? The question haunts Ministers’ response to Marcus Rashford. It persists alongside yesterday’s terrible death figures.