Remember “Clapping for Carers” and the rainbow placards: “Thank You, Key Workers” in our windows at the onset of the pandemic? It all seems a long time ago, far enough away to start thinking about what triggered the outburst of generosity and the feeling that “we’re all in this together” during the first lockdown. And what destroyed it.
New research from the University of Kent used a novel approach to examine detailed shifts in public support for the more vulnerable on a week by week basis during the crisis. The wave of public support for low-paid key workers and those who lost their jobs is particularly striking because it is at odds with traditional attitudes in the UK.
People in this country by and large view the poor with suspicion and maintain a rigid work ethic. Low-paid key workers have never been high on the public agenda and benefits for the poor have been at a breadline level and accompanied with stringent job search conditions. The pressures on the poor have become particularly intense since the election of the 2010 government with its benefits freeze (in effect a real-terms cut every year) and benefit cap, rent cap and family cap: no benefits for more than two children, not to mention the bedroom tax and five-week wait for a claim to come through.
This research tracks donations to crowd-funding sites like JustGiving, VirginMoneyGiving and GoFundMe for food-banks and similar appeals for the most basic needs of those who are destitute. It uses advanced data-harvesting and shows a four-fold increase in food bank income during the first lockdown from March to July 2020, with a smaller rise during the second lockdown in September, October, November and a very small rise during the third lockdown around Christmas. This pattern does not correspond to need. The numbers coming to food banks and the numbers claiming Universal Credit went on rising throughout the period.
What it does relate to is trust in and approval of the government. Attitudes to government and measures of general trust follow the waves in foodbank giving. The implication is that the driving force for the generosity and the fellow-feeling at the beginning of the first lockdown was the idea that we are all in this together. A pandemic affects all of us and calls forth a united response, at odds with the competitive market-based logic that governs much of our society.
So far as we can see, the government squandered this feeling of unity through dilatory response to covid-19 and the evidence of cronyism in the contracting of many things: from apps to face-masks to hospital supplies and its failure to address obvious needs from care homes to free school meals. This view is reinforced by the evidence that public support fell off a cliff at the time of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham – an emblem of political insiders acting as if the rules laid down apply to everybody else except themselves. Newspapers started circulating this story on 23 May 2020 and that’s when confidence in government and support for food banks both collapsed.
We argue there are two key conclusions from this research:
- Despite the growing inequality of our society, resources of unity and fellow-feeling still exist. People will help the vulnerable just because they are in need.
- It is very easy for government, through thoughtlessness or the self-interest of its allies, to destroy that solidarity.
Managing pandemics is not easy, but we are likely to face more global outbreaks of new diseases in the future. Perhaps we can remember to keep the value of social sharing and mutual care on the agenda, alongside all the practical and economic issues.
About the authors
Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent.
Tomas Petricek is Lecturer at the University of Kent.
Jack Cunliffe is Lecturer at the University of Kent.