Ahead of the Chancellor's statement on the economy scheduled for later today, Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, asks: "Why has the UK had one of the highest death tolls from Covid and why has the North been hit so hard?
"If I was the Chancellor, I would begin my Statement today by acknowledging the need to face up to this uncomfortable truth as part of putting resilience at the heart the recovery process.
"This is because you can’t be taken seriously on “levelling up” unless you are honest about why the places you say you want to help have been laid low again.
"One of the reasons why is that many more people living in our poorest communities are in low-paid, insecure jobs than a decade ago. As a result, they have been less able to follow official public health advice than others.
"They have been working throughout lockdown and unable to self-isolate if symptomatic or asked to do so by NHS Test and Trace because they know they won’t be paid if they do.
"Scandalously, this includes people working in social care. At the start of the crisis, Unison surveyed care workers in the North West and found that 80% feared they wouldn’t be paid if they needed to self-isolate.
"On top of that, two million people have no entitlement to statutory sick pay. And, for those who do, how many can live on £95 a week?
"All of these issues have created the conditions for the accelerated spread of the virus in the poorest communities. Until they are addressed, NHS Test and Trace will not succeed in chasing the virus down.
"But, looking to the longer term, “levelling up” will not succeed as a political initiative unless it is rooted in the reality of people’s lives in the North and it is accepted that much more needs to be done to improve work and build resilience in our poorest communities.
"When he stands up in Parliament later today, there are things the Chancellor could promise that would offer those places better protection against a second wave and a winter without a vaccine. But this should only the start of a new drive to lay much stronger foundations for levelling up.
"First, he could announce an immediate pay rise for all people working in social care - a real living wage of at least £10 an hour - and guarantee that they will all receive full pay if they need to self-isolate. The country would applaud him heartily for doing so.
"Second, he could significantly increase statutory sick pay - with immediate effect and for the duration of the crisis - and give every employee in the country guaranteed access to it if they get a request from NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate.
"Third, he could abolish the benefit cap – the value of which remains unchanged since 2016 and has not been adjusted to take into account the impact of Covid on people’s incomes.
"Fourth, looking to the longer-term, he could commit to improve work and pay for those in the lowest-paid professions - or the “essential workers” as they are also now known. At least a real living wage for all and an end to enforced zero-hours contracts. To drive this forward, he would be welcome to use Greater Manchester’s Good Employment Charter as a template and link it to public procurement as we are planning to do here.
"Fifth, he could set up a review into introducing a Universal Basic Income - an idea whose time may just have come. We need to stop the situation where pay rises for workers mean nothing when they are immediately offset by losses in benefit. This is a moment for this country to recognise that there is a minimum amount of money that every one of our fellow citizens needs if they are to be able to have good physical and mental health.
"Announcing these five things today would do more to level up our poorest communities and regions than any number of shovel-ready projects the Chancellor might announce.
"I have no doubt that we will hear later about a number of interventions into the labour market which will help create and sustain jobs. If we do, I will welcome them. I also believe that the Chancellor’s focus on young people is absolutely right. But, until we get much more serious about the improving the quality of jobs, we won’t build back better or stronger.
"The fact that we are living through this pandemic now doesn’t mean we couldn’t face another one in the near future. It would be unforgivable if we fail to learn the lessons from it and be honest with ourselves about why Britain’s death toll has been so high."
This article first appeared in Times Red Box on Wednesday 8 July.
Article Published: 08/07/2020 09:11 AM