A street cleaner outside the closed up Claridge's hotel. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Two Britains

Former Labour MP Natascha Engel says the country divides on our relationship with HMRC

Artillery Row

Looking back through the lockdown haze it’s hard to remember the angry divisions over Brexit. With so many deaths and tragedies that have hit so many families it’s tempting to think that, as awful as it has been, coronavirus has at least brought us all together again and made us realise what really matters.

But that’s just half the story.

Of course corona is a matter of life and death in the way that voting Leave or Remain was not, but the virus has exposed something else – and that’s where the true divisions lie in Britain today.

Not between young and old, rich and poor or public and private, but between those whose income is secure and those in precarious jobs. And these groups aren’t necessarily who we think they are. If you’re very wealthy you’re far more likely to be all right, but beyond that, the splits are less obvious than politicians and policymakers like to think.

YouGov’s happiness tracker tells us that many people have adapted to lockdown. In quite a few cases people are actively enjoying it. One friend I spoke to almost whispered down the phone, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m loving it!”

For him, the lockdown has been a rare time of self-reflection. It’s not a holiday. Although he’s ashamed to admit it, it’s better. He has seen that a different life is possible. Instead of spending half of it stuck on public transport, he is enjoying his garden, reacquainting himself with his children and watching box sets. It really is like a month of Sundays. And it’s not his fault! It’s on strict Government orders!

This is not to say that he has stopped working. Far from it. For many people who are now working from home, hours and productivity have seriously increased. Instead of getting up, out of pyjamas, under the shower and onto the train, they’re at their laptops.

Time usually spent travelling between meetings is now better used to make tea before clicking onto the next Zoom call – and you can work everything around your daily dose of yoga with Adrienne. These are the people who miss work like children miss school. It’s their social life and they love seeing their friends, but it’s a tiny sacrifice for an enormous gain. “To be honest,” my friend said, “I’d be happy if this carried on indefinitely.”

As coronavirus numbers drop, the number of people in Precarious Britain has been rising

This group can be in quite well-paid jobs working for companies that are big enough to absorb the financial hit but that’s not everyone. As strange as it sounds, this group includes pensioners and those who are claiming benefits. In many cases it’s no more than money to survive on, but the income is secure and it’s regular – crucially they know that it will continue after lockdown ends.

It goes some way to explaining the recent IPSOS Mori poll of 14 countries which found that the UK had the lowest number of people believing that we should go back to work before the virus was fully contained. It’s partly because we put health before wealth, partly because we love our NHS and understand about not overwhelming it, but it’s also because many of us know that we can sit this out and we’ll probably be ok when the lockdown is lifted.

But this isn’t true of the other Britain, the precariat that may be Just About Managing right now but whose rapidly rising concerns are about what happens when the shutters do finally roll up.

Again, this group isn’t as obvious as we think. The cash-in-hand cleaners and gardeners, the mobile hairdressers, waiters and baristas who haven’t got payslips to show HMRC are now joined by freelance journalists, owners of independent shops, and musicians, for example – people who don’t have official contracts of work, who depend on people gathering together closer than 2m apart, whose industries may not exist after lockdown, or who can’t afford the rent on their premises anymore.

Another friend who is a home tutor has lost almost every single student since the outbreak of the virus. He can do it online, but families are tightening their belts. While he thinks he’ll get to the end of the lockdown, he’s not sure how he’s going to get his mortgage payments together in a couple of months.

He’s desperate for everything to get back to normal so that he can work again but he also knows that the trouble really only starts once the lockdown ends – and only then will we really know the size of the problem. It’s safe to guess, though, that this group is growing exponentially.

The Government has been concentrating on getting the number of coronavirus cases down, on flattening the curve. But as quickly as those numbers have dropped, the number of people in Precarious Britain has been rising. And getting that number down may prove a lot harder than the first.

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