On Friday (20 March), the government announced a truly massive set of measures, finally, to attempt to bail out the people who are being hit financially by the coronavirus epidemic.
After focusing on businesses, leaving individuals and households in fear for far too many days, the package gave an apparently broad blanket of security with the offer of meeting 80 per cent of the salary of staff unable to work but kept on by businesses, and modest boosts to benefits.
And finally on Friday, it also emerged that the government would drop benefit sanctions, ensuring recipients would not have to risk their health and that of the public to meet conditions such as attending job centres.
But the huge holes in that “security” blanket, the numbers that it will not cover and not even approach, have quickly become clear.
Even at the press conference, when the Chancellor was asked what the arrangements would be for zero-hours contract workers, he had no clear answer. Later, it was suggested payment would be on the basis of February earnings, but for many, particularly in hospitality and tourism, earnings will have been sparse that month.
Many, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, reflecting on the economic nature of her Brighton economy, immediately pointed out that a provision of less than £100 a week of Universal Credit could not meet the needs of many self-employed people and sole-traders.
Reflection over the weekend produced many further concerns. Some workers went on to social media to note that their employers had immediately said they would not participate in the scheme.
Workers are entirely at the mercy of their employers’ decision on this – and it seems likely that lower-paid workers are likely to be particularly vulnerable, as are those working for smaller firms who may struggle, even with the best will in the world, to manage financially and practically to meet the scheme’s requirements. Financially, many will be at risk of not surviving until the end of April when the first payments are promised.
With regard to Universal Credit, there have to be grave concerns about how a system that creaks at the seams from regular demands will cope with the extra burden. I was contacted by one Universal Credit benefit recipient who didn’t receive her payment last week and so has no money to buy food. They had been trying to call helplines, but were unable to get through.
A five-week wait for payments, even should an application be put in today, is unconscionable.
Many self-employed are in confusion, and considerable despair. People employed as gardeners and cleaners, a very large group who are very often sole-traders or self-employed, have seen nearly all of their incomes dry up, and often have little in the way of financial reserves.
We are all in this together. It is both just, and, practically speaking, in all of our interests to ensure a liveable minimum income for all to allow people and households to self-isolate when necessary to protect us all.
The Green Party has long advocated a universal basic income (UBI) to meet the needs of everyone regards to food, shelter, clothing and other essentials, without fear of penury.
Introducing one now under such conditions is a huge logistical challenge, but so too is every other proposal and plan being put forward.
We certainly have to find a way to ensure that everyone has an income in at least the coming year (and very probably 18 months). That has to be a given. The government’s “three months or as long as necessary” is a very thin fig leaf for how long we are obviously going to have to exist under emergency conditions.
Sunday’s announcement of free food packages from the government available to the 1.5 million with medical conditions demanding full isolation is another sign that times have changed.
Conditionality is out. It has always been cruel and unfair, with many failing to receive money they were entitled to.
It has led to horrific deaths, and many tragedies. In the coronavirus epidemic, conditionality is both impossible to deliver and a threat to the security of all.
UBI has to be the direction we are heading in. The government has started with businesses, and now brought in a scheme that will mostly help those working for larger employers, in more stable and secure jobs.
In the Green Party’s view that was entirely the wrong way around, but given where we are now, a way has to be found – and quickly – to provide security for all, but particularly the most vulnerable in our society.
Natalie Bennett is a former leader of the Green Party and a Green peer sitting in the House of Lords as Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle.