Life

'We're Not in This Together' – How the UK Failed Working Class People During COVID

Let's face it: It's a privilege if you're able to work from home.
March 24, 2021, 8:45am
ChristopherBethell_Coronavirus_TuesdayWednesday-43
Photo: Christopher Bethell

Most people will remember where they were last March, when coronavirus was declared a pandemic. I was in Munich airport travelling for work – absentmindedly switching my hold luggage with a pretzel between unwashed hands – when a news alert reversed my route. Like the rest of the world, I had to head home, for a while.

Now we’ve hit the one-year anniversary of lockdown; a whole year since Boris Johnson first warned us to stay home, save lives and protect the NHS. Over the first three months of the initial lockdown, 8.7 million people were furloughed, 730,000 lost their jobs, and the remaining professionals were sent to work from home. For me, like many, this translated into staring blankly at screens showing the rapidly climbing death toll.

Advertisement

With people forced out of public spaces, the pandemic conversation lived online. Twitter filled with panicked questions of how to escape tenancies as young people rushed to move back in with their parents, and work-from-home memes instantly emerged, concealing what a privilege – comparatively – it is to be stuck at home. Soon, an entire cultural discourse emerged, mostly revolving around watching Netflix, panic buying Nintendo Switches and a lot of banana bread. 

In their study of how Twitter frames the pandemic, the US National Library of Medicine enthusiastically notes this is the first time we’ve been able to see everyday people’s instant responses to a global ordeal like this. It’s a new kind of historical documentation, but social media is innately biased. According to Statista, almost 60 percent of Twitter users are under 35, and a Khoros report reveals that most have an income of at least $30,000 (around £25,800). 

Unsurprisingly, many low-income people have felt alienated by the online discussion around the pandemic. “It’s annoying, everyone whining about how bored they are,” says Daniel, 45, who works as a forklift driver for a logistics company.

For key workers like him, it’s been business as usual. “I haven’t had time to be bored. I haven’t even seen Tiger King yet,” he laughs. 

Advertisement

While social media would have you believe most of the country stayed home baking sourdough, many people from low-income backgrounds were trapped in the COVID firing line, often grappling with a lack of financial security during the deepest recession since World War II.

Daniel has worked an exhausting 45 to 60 hours of night shifts per week throughout the pandemic, mostly without breaks. “It’s a real slap in the face that people are joking about missing the first lockdown online,” he says. “I spent the first lockdown panicking about catching the disease at work.”

He regularly gets tested for COVID, but says that his employers don’t allow anyone to take time off while they’re awaiting results. A month ago, two colleagues caught COVID-19 but were still made to come into work. “The building hasn’t even been cleaned since,” he says. “This was a month ago.”  

Daniel admits he’s jealous of people working from home, and even those who’ve been furloughed. “Maybe I’m misunderstanding furlough, but I’d love to hide at home while getting 80 percent, and I struggle to take people complaining about working from home seriously.” 

The furlough scheme has been portrayed as an amicable solution to an unprecedented crisis; something many working professionals have clung to for security. As the average yearly salary in the UK is approximately £38,600, the expectation is that most can live comfortably on 70-80 per cent of their wage. The reality is that this isn’t a sustainable drop in earnings for many people, especially when zero-hour contracts are involved and there are no savings or family income to tap into. 

Advertisement

Stephen, 28, was furloughed from a cafe job last March, where he worked on a zero-hour contract. “I was doing 28 hours a week but my boss calculated my wages based on a month where I didn’t do many, so I only got £67 a fortnight in furlough money.” 

Working class people have been left out of the discussion around lockdown, he says. “I don’t relate to any of the online stuff about the lockdown, at all. I know we’re all online more than we used to be, but I just do not get Zoom. The internet doesn’t consume my life as much as the ‘working from home’ people.”

Worried about finances, Stephen emailed a local politician for help. His Labour MP replied with a link to apply for Universal Credit (UC), but Stephen isn’t eligible because they take partners’ income into account when assessing applicants. 

“There are a number of reasons why someone might not have access to their partner’s money,” he says. “It was such a difficult process. It doesn’t feel like these systems are designed for the people who need them the most.” 

Stephen quickly found another job to escape the zero-hour contract, but has been furloughed again. “It’s like Groundhog Day, I’m back at square one.” This time he’s more grateful for furlough, explaining that his new workplace didn’t have safe working conditions. 

Advertisement

This appears to be a common theme for other young working class people. During the pandemic, Ellen*, 24, assisted with welding classes in a prison. “Working in a prison last March was a joke; no social distancing, no rules at all. They got brave thinking COVID-19 would never come inside.” 

Ellen explained that neither staff nor prisoners could wear masks “for security reasons” and that staff would even be walked off-site if they tried to enter wearing one. She says that the prison only started implementing social distancing months later, by which time it was too late. 

“Obviously, no one took it seriously. It wasn’t a safe environment for anyone within it, inmates, visitors or staff members. Vulnerable prisoners had requests for masks rejected, even inmates with cancer,” she says, adding, “Having to work there put a huge strain on my mental health.” 

A spokesperson from HM Prison Services told VICE: “Our plan to control the virus in prisons has saved lives, with deaths and infections significantly lower than predicted at the start of the pandemic. Since March surgical grade masks have been mandatory for high-risk activities and they are now compulsory in outbreak sites.” They added that they no record of staff being escorted off the prison site for wearing masks.

Ellen has since left to work at a welding company. She is still required to go into work, but says she has more faith in hew new employer’s COVID safety precautions. 

Advertisement

When coronavirus entered the UK, it collided headlong into its long-running engine of inequality. Working from home is a privilege that many simply don’t enjoy – and it’s left them in a Catch-22. Daniel doesn’t get paid if he chooses to stay home, so he’s risked his health to keep earning. “I can’t afford to live if I don’t go into work,” he says. “But if I catch the disease, I can’t drop food off for my shielding mum.”

For a lot of people from low-income backgrounds, the idea of COVID-19 as a non-discriminate virus has been frustrating. Ellen, Daniel and Stephen all agree that the “we’re all in this together” message peddled by the government and reinforced on social media couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“It’s a dangerous myth,” Stephen says. “We’ve got to a worrying place where an old man walking laps of his garden to fundraise for the NHS is normalised, or when foodbank use is skyrocketing while billionaires get richer. Working class people have been failed in this country.

“We’re not all in this together.” 

*Name has been changed

@bethmayashley