This piece is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team on the coronavirus crisis. Views expressed are the opinions of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench as a whole, which is non-partisan in outlook. The editors will be taking questions and responses on their thoughts about the crisis on Twitter @Backbench_UK or by direct message to the Facebook page. Select responses will be compiled in a letters to the editor feature.
Just a few weeks ago, I was as unprepared as anyone for the news agenda to be dominated by one thing alone, and for how I live my life to be largely dictated by that one thing.
A few weeks ago, I booked theatre tickets and a holiday. I went to cafes with friends and to work every weekday. I travelled freely on the tube, bus and train and found everything I needed in the supermarkets.
It’s frightening how fast things can change. I don’t know when the penny dropped for me, or when the panic set in, but it soon became apparent that life as I had known it was due to change immeasurably.
My role at Backbench has meant that I tend to try and form an opinion on most news items, many of which are totally disconnected from my life. Even when issues in the news have a bearing on my life, the effects of this are rarely immediately tangible. But suddenly, faced with a crisis which has swept all of us up in its clutches, my mind went strangely blank. Instead of having an opinion on the situation, I was paralysed for several days by anxiety. I’ve lived a pretty comfortable life, I think, and the fact that so many things I have always taken for granted were no longer guaranteed was difficult to fathom.
But a couple of weeks into social distancing/lockdown, and with new norms starting to creep into place, I think I’m finally beginning to be able to take a step back from the situation as a whole.
There a few thoughts and feelings I have – some are more centred around my personal circumstances, while others involve me taking a look at the wider picture.
On a personal level, I am worried. Though I still have a job, I am naturally fearful for it. Though I have a safe and loving home, I worry about how it will feel to be cooped up inside it for a long period of time. Though I and those I love are generally healthy, I nevertheless am nervous about what this virus could mean for us. I am not nearly one of the worst affected – and yet I am afraid.
At first, I oscillated between feeling panicky and feeling guilty (as someone fairly comfortably off in all senses) for panicking. Now, I am learning to accept that it’s okay to panic. It’s okay to have fear as long as you try to learn to channel it into something more positive. It’s okay to be anxious as long as you make sure to have perspective on that anxiety, and try to contextualise it. We can’t help how we feel – and we must be kind to ourselves at times like these.
Once you accept that how you feel is valid, it’s somehow easier to deal with. It’s easier to stop focusing on those feelings entirely, and to start to think about the world beyond. And though this can be just as confusing as our personal circumstances, I have a few thoughts and feelings that I’d like to share.
As someone who has typically been critical of the Conservative party, and of right-wing economics, the huge u-turns and political promises of recent weeks have generated a degree of annoyance. Boris Johnson’s applause for NHS workers, after years of influence in a party that has systematically cut funding increases to the NHS and slashed the budget for social care (which so often works in tandem with NHS provision), seems like an empty gesture. Though he may have been sincere in his appreciation for health workers, perhaps it was too little too late. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Tory MPs cheered when they blocked a Labour bid to increase the wages of public sector workers such as nurses. And we mustn’t forget that we live in a society where some of our frontline healthcare workers rely on food banks to survive. Appreciation is more than just a clap.
And of course, this is not just a question of appreciation for the health service being somewhat belated or even insincere. If the NHS had not been stripped of so much resource, we would not be in the position we find ourselves in now. The NHS has seen the loss of 17,000 beds since 2010, and has just 2.5 intensive care beds per 1000 people. In 2016, the government rejected recommendations to ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) was available for all frontline NHS staff on the grounds that this would be too costly. The government is now paying through the nose for its previous parsimony. It is precisely because we lack resource now that such drastic measures have to be taken.
But of course, back in 2016, we would have been told that there was no ‘magic money tree’ for such things as PPE. Or for funding research into a vaccine that could combat coronaviruses, of which Covid-19 is certainly not the first. Of course much of the state support Sunak has pledged will be borrowed money, but direct public spending is shooting up dramatically, and we are seeing investment in our public services that the Conservatives have so often dismissed as fiscally irresponsible. Yes, we are in a crisis, and circumstances are certainly not normal, but for many of us it is galling that it is only now that the value of public spending has been so acutely realised. Why has it taken a crisis to bring this about?
The sad thing is that this realisation is heavily driven by the fact that this time, it won’t just be those on low-incomes who lose out. The wealthiest of tycoons could see their luxury property and tourism empires collapse. Middle-income earners who never thought they needed much in the way of a welfare state suddenly find themselves desperate for help. Polly Toynbee, writing for The Guardian, commented that the middle classes were about to feel the cruelty and inhumanity of the UK’s benefits system. But maybe they won’t – not the full force of it anyway. Because subjecting the traditional Tory voter-base to the same cruelty as has been dealt to society’s poor, disabled, vulnerable and disenfranchised would perhaps finally force such people to confront what a decade of austerity has done.
And so we have it. The increased public spending of recent weeks is undoubtedly prompted by a realisation that even the rich and well-to-do really do need a safety net. Without this, society will fall into disarray.
It may be frustrating that it has taken this long for the value of a welfare state to become patently clear to all, but we should look at the positives. Because this realisation has now happened. We can see what a lack of public spending does to a society. And we can also be grateful for what we still have here in the UK, resolving that no more will we as a society sit back idly while our public services are mercilessly pruned, and our poor and vulnerable fall victim to systemic discrimination.
We can come out of this stronger, with knowledge of what our society truly should look like. We can demand that our NHS is strengthened, so that it can cope with future crises. We can demand that our societal foundations are robust, so that a situation like this in the future takes no-one by surprise. We must see what is happening around us as a learning opportunity.
That is why I feel hope. I hope that we can look forward to a future where public spending creates strong societal foundations; where low-paid workers and workers across key industries are valued more; where flexible work becomes a right, not a privilege. I dare to hope – and so must you.