The pandemic has brought into sharp relief many of the inequalities in our society. While the crisis brought new struggles for everyone, in most cases it was those on low incomes, in insecure work, or vulnerable for other reasons that bore the brunt of the virus’s devastation.
There’s no doubt that working from home brought new and difficult challenges for many of us, but disproportionately those who were able to work from home were better off than those who could not. Those working in essential services like care or in supermarkets put their own health at risk to make sure the rest of society could cope with the crisis.
That is why I’m delighted the Scottish Government recently announced its intention to expand eligibility criteria for the Self-Isolation Support Grant after Scottish Green colleagues called for such changes in Holyrood. This grant is designed to ensure that people who were forced into a period of self-isolation did not suffer financially for doing so. Unfortunately, upon its introduction it only covered a very limited number of people on low incomes, but this expansion goes some way to correcting that.
The new rules mean that some parents and carers will be able to claim the grant if their child is forced to self-isolate, as well as people who eligible for but not claiming Universal Credit, importantly paying upfront rather than have them waiting for weeks for UK Government to pay. These are important tweaks. Low pay and unsecure contracts mean too many people are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous bosses forcing them to work when they shouldn’t have to.
Of course, we need only look back a few weeks to be reminded why so many people are in low paid vulnerable work. The UK Government’s spending review was a grim indication of austerity to come.
Despite the fact the entire public sector has been a central part of our response to the pandemic, the Tory Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a pay freeze. It’s important to be clear that “freeze” is a euphemism for “cut”. While the number on public sector payslips won’t change their income will effectively be reduced.
All of this was justified by supposedly static private sector wages. Mr Sunak knows as well as anyone that his rationalisation ignores the fact that the Tories have the power to do something about poverty wages in the private sector but chose not to. The laughably titled “National Living Wage” remains some way away from a rate that anyone could feasibly live off and no mention was made of taxing their mates’ businesses that have made enormous profits from the pandemic.
This is a constant pattern with Conservative governments. People at the bottom have their incomes crushed into the dust while simultaneously services we all rely on are slashed. It’s wilful, it’s cruel and it’s time for Scotland to break that cycle.
This column originally appeared in the Inverness Courier