Are we “all in this together?”: Reflecting on the continuities between austerity and COVID-19 crises in the UK

Professor Annette Hastings highlights three groups who bore the brunt of austerity and are now set to bear the brunt of COVID-19. This blog is part of a wider series exploring the impact of the current pandemic on housing in the UK.

As the evidence emerges on the social and economic patterning of the virus and the economic aftermath, it is clear that our most disadvantaged people and communities are taking the brunt of the COVID shock.

As the enormity of the COVID–19 crisis began to unfold, a trope once deployed by the architects of post- GFC austerity in the UK “We’re all in this together” began to be voiced again. Promulgated initially by no less a body than the World Health Organisation, the trope is designed to convey a sense of common suffering and consequent solidarity. However, in relation to both austerity and COVID-19, the truth is otherwise.

As the evidence emerges on the social and economic patterning of the virus and the economic aftermath, it is clear that our most disadvantaged people and communities are taking the brunt of the COVID shock. It is also clear that a decade of austerity has undermined their immunity, leaving them more susceptible to disproportionate levels of harm, directly from the virus – illness and death – and indirectly from its social and economic fallout.

Evidence of the unevenness of these direct and indirect effects emerges every day. In the US, the starkness of links between race, poverty and vulnerability has been exposed. In the UK, the susceptibility of homeless people to the disease as well of those living in overcrowded housing is becoming clear. The vulnerability of those in low incomes and in precarious employment to the economic shut down is also notable.

Three groups who bore the brunt of austerity and are now set to bear the brunt of COVID-19 deserve some attention.

  • Young people under 25. This is the group that grew up during the decade of austerity: whose schools and FE colleges were underfunded; whose youth centres were closed down; who lost the Educational Maintenance Allowance. It is the group who grew up witnessing the destitution on our streets and who believe food banks to have always been necessary or that libraries are there to access universal credit or meet job search conditions. And – while young people are less susceptible to the illness – they have been hit hardest by economic lockdown and are highly vulnerable to the aftermath. Employees under 25 were more than twice as likely as others to work in shut down sectors. They are also more likely to report COVID related job loss. Many will return to employment after lockdown. But for some, the transition back into the labour market will not be smooth. And for those young people aiming to join the workforce for the first time in what could be the very worst of times, the scars that unemployment as a young adult leaves on their longer-term employment prospects could be deep.
  • Front-line workers. In research on the impacts of austerity on local government, we found that front-line workers were acting as ‘shock absorbers’ of austerity – of burgeoning workloads caused by rising needs, staff cutbacks and back-office savings. Distressing testimony of the effects of austerity pales in comparison to the stories of front-line workers absorbing the shock of the pandemic. Health workers, police, fire and the ‘fourth emergency service’ of local government care workers, social workers, bus drivers, refuse collectors and cemetery workers are in an actual front-line full of danger. They also tend to be lower paid than their home working bosses and to have lower in-work benefits, particularly in relation to sick pay, meaning they work when ill. Front-line service workers battle the virus with immune systems compromised by austerity.
  • Women are the majority of the front-line service workforce, particularly in the health, care and education sectors, ensuring that austerity and COVID have gendered impacts. Austerity cuts to welfare and housing systems impacted heavily on female-headed households; cuts to public services affect women because they use them more, but also because they tend to compensate for service gaps with their unpaid labour especially for child and elder care. Some of the biggest cuts are to services used more by women such as children’s centres and domestic abuse refuges. While we don’t yet know how the additional caring labour required by lockdown is being shared, gender disproportionate burdens seem likely. We do know damaged domestic abuse services are reporting strain, and that, in lockdown, the number of women killed by men is more than double the average for the period previously. We also know that women are more likely to work in sectors most acutely affected by lockdown, affecting current earnings, debt levels and future prospects. And we also know that three-quarters of workers considered to be at ‘high risk’ in relation to contracting COVID-19 are women – nearly two and a half million of them. A million of these are paid below 60% median wages. Of great concern, is that the rate of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wales is around twice as high among working-age women as it is among men – suggesting, perhaps, the dangerous interaction of compromised immunity and high risk for these women.

Speculation abounds as to what the post-COVID ‘new normal’ will be like. The early evidence gives us plenty of clues: for some groups, unless we decide otherwise, it will look pretty much like the old normal – hard, uncertain and unfair.

Prof Annette Hastings is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.


Date: April 17, 2020 1:37 pm


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