Sun 6 Dec 2020 14.00 GMT Last modified on Mon 7 Dec 2020 04.37 GMT
The pandemic has badly hit people who were already facing financial hardship. I met some of them: it was a sobering experience
Last week, the blighted state of large parts of the country fleetingly broke into the news. On Monday, the Legatum Institute thinktank reported that about 700,000 people in the UK had been pushed into poverty as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and said that the figure would have been twice as large had it not been for the government’s £20-a-week uprating of universal credit, which it plans to end in the spring.
The next day, the BBC’s News at Ten carried a package from the Lancashire town of Burnley, about a kind of deprivation so severe that it brought some of the people who had witnessed it to tears: families living without electricity, gas or basic furniture; children so hungry that they ripped open food parcels as soon as they were delivered.
The latter report seemed to trigger a shocked response, but other headlines soon arrived to take the national conversation somewhere else. The government’s announcement of the early rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine brought understandable tributes to the wonders of science – and, in the face of warnings that it would take a long time to inoculate everyone, yet another burst of frenzied speculation about how soon life might get back to “normal”.
With his customary gravitas, the prime minister had already warned against taking “our foot off the throat of the beast”, while the government’s scientific advisers suggested that families planning to mix at Christmas should avoid board games. By way of truly light relief, as unease mounted about a no-deal Brexit, there was an ongoing conversation among politicians and journalists about the regulatory niceties of scotch eggs. Here, it seemed, was further evidence of what happens when an unserious country has to cope with very serious times.
Just over a week ago, I got back from three days of reporting in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. It was a sobering, unsettling experience, full of proof of how the last nine months have only worsened the predicament of many people and places that were hardly prospering to begin with. Just north of Manchester’s city centre in the disadvantaged neighbourhood of Collyhurst, I had three conversations in 15 minutes with men in their 20s who had not worked in six months; and an exchange with a young mother who had been laid off after eight years at the same company, only to endure a two-month wait for universal credit. In the middle of the city, the women working in a sandwich shop surrounded by empty streets told me the business would not make it to the spring: most people I met were dutifully following the latest mess of restrictions, but could hardly be blamed for sometimes wondering if it was all worth it.
With no persuasion, people talked not just about jobs, benefits and businesses, but also their mental health, and experiences of fear, depression and loneliness. At a primary school in Brownhills, near Walsall, I met a young mother who explained how the crisis had affected her two kids. In the first phase of lockdown, her elder son “didn’t see anyone apart from me, his dad and a baby for six months”. She worried about her 10-month-old, she said, because most adults he sees are hidden behind masks, “and he’s not been able to be with anyone of his own age at all”.
Death and rates of infection can be quantified, crunched, and turned into charts and graphs. What still seem to elude us are the consequences of this crisis that require a more human level of explanation.
Issues of wellbeing and economics meet in the fate of high streets that now seem to be hollowing out at speed. Everyone knows that, after years of decline, Covid-19 has accelerated an irreversible change which has dire implications for people’s sense of who they are and where they live – something made all the more terrifying by the fact that, after decades of industrial decline, retail is all that many places have left.
In Walsall, famed for the manufacture of leather goods and nuts and bolts, an inescapable melancholia is embodied by a giant, deserted branch of Marks & Spencer, not far from the local branch of Debenhams. The former dominates the pedestrianised strip where I spoke to a homeless man called Nige, who was wondering how he was going to scrape together the money for a night in a nearby hostel when passersby no longer carry small change.
In the midst of such scenes, one thought struck me again and again. If all those analogies with wartime are to be believed, a crisis as all-pervading as this one might be expected to bring government and politics to the centre of everyday life. This year’s daily theatrics – press conferences, scientific briefings, prime ministerial statements – are certainly based on that expectation. But whatever the noise that emanates from Westminster and Whitehall, the chasm that separates people from power feels as big as ever.
“Levelling up” remains a matter of political cosmetics. If the spring and summer held out the hope of some vague consensus focused on “key workers” and public services, that prospect now seems to have slipped away. And in place of coherent leadership, we now have a daily cacophony of pronouncements from which most people seem to have long since switched off.
Another estrangement has survived from the referendum period. It centres on the differences between parts of the population who live difficult and precarious lives, and a section of the middle class that is both comfortably off and self-consciously “progressive”. For the latter, the Covid crisis and its restrictions are still too often equated with banana bread, Zoom calls and the pleasures of working from home. Among the former, Covid often seems like what one passerby in Walsall called “a living hell”.
If you have lately found yourself waking in the night wondering what the immediate future might be like, imagine what your reaction would be if you were having to count every last penny, and worrying about whether or not your entire town was going to meaningfully survive. That is now the situation in hundreds of places, and it demands a level of gravity and empathy that many of us have yet to discover.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says “the economic outlook remains very uncertain, with the recovery in activity becoming increasingly hesitant”, and warns of a twin threat to the UK economy from Covid-19 and Brexit. In the New York Times, an economist suggests that “the very concept of normalcy now seems open to question”.
These are things that the people I met would understand as a matter of instinct – even as politicians seem close to declaring that the arrival of vaccines means our troubles are nearly over. Beyond all but the most affluent parts of this country, the crisis feels like it will last – experienced not as some sudden bolt from the blue, but the largest of a long chain of setbacks and calamities that date back decades.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist