It is often said – rightly I believe – that this Coronavirus outbreak is the biggest crisis that our country has faced since the Second World War. We have all felt its impact – some, sadly, far more so than others. Whilst we are all staying home as much as possible to try to slow the spread of the virus and save lives, many face an uncertain future as businesses fold and jobs are lost.
Whilst the Government have introduced some welcome measures to help businesses and employees through this period, it is clear that this won’t be enough for some who will instead be forced to fall back on the safety net of our welfare state.
Over a million people have applied for Universal Credit since this crisis began. Many of them may never have thought they would ever have to rely on benefits and will now see how flawed our modern welfare state has become.
Central to this is the disastrous Universal Credit. I have written numerous times in these pages about its many flaws; it is poorly-designed and has been implemented very badly. As it was rolled out to new areas (Tameside was a pilot), we saw increases in food bank use, rent arrears and child poverty. As much as people in these areas warned about the impact that UC was having, the Government pushed on. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands will now have to find this out first-hand.
Another element of the welfare state – statutory sick pay (SSP) – has also been exposed by this crisis. This currently stands at just £95.85 per week – the lowest in Europe other than Malta. When asked a few weeks ago whether he could live on SSP, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that he could not. The question then is how anyone else can be expected to.
It is no coincidence that the strongest foundations for our welfare state – including the establishment of our wonderful NHS – were laid by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government following the Second World War, our last major national crisis. As a country, post-war Britain decided that nobody should be left behind and that the state should catch people when they fell then put them into the position to get back on their feet.
That is the point of the welfare state. Unfortunately, years of mismanagement have left us with a welfare system which just doesn’t work. I hope that one positive that could come out of this dreadful crisis is a reformed welfare state that once again looks to support people in need.