Opinion: What Is The ‘Economy’ If It Does Not Support Those In Need Or Reward Our Frontline Heroes?

The Government announced that those that have given all they can to the health and well-being of this nation during the pandemic are being rewarded with a £3.50 a week pay-rise. Nurses have been at the forefront of the effort to combat the worst public health crisis this nation has faced in decades—but apparently, there isn’t the money to pay them properly. That is where we are as the 6th richest nation in the world. This sorry state of affairs begs the question; what is an economy if it doesn’t support us all in a time of crisis or give thanks to frontline workers who have battled to keep the country going?

The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) have already set up a £35 million Strike Fund in response to the Government’s announcement and full solidarity to them. What they have gone through during this crisis will live with them forever, and will inevitably have caused an incredible strain on their personal lives and health over the last 12 months. It’s amazing to think that as a nation we showed our gratitude with a weekly clap for carers not too long ago, and now we are expected to accept that they only deserve a 1% pay-rise.

The pandemic comes on top of a difficult decade for NHS staff overall, as cuts and pay freezes made their work-lives increasingly difficult and their personal lives close to unmanageable. Since the Conservatives took power in 2010, there has been a 55% increase in voluntary resignations from NHS workers, with the number of staff quitting due to poor work-life balance rising by 169% between 2011/12 and 2017/18. In 2017 the RCN reported that there was a “growing numbers of nursing staff using food banks, taking on additional jobs and accruing personal debt.”

Queue outside a food bank over Christmas 2020 (Picture: BPM Media)

Nurses being plunged into financial difficulties has been exacerbated with the COVID crisis, with over a third (39%) of nurses admitting to having to skip meals in order to feed their family or to save money (a figure which increases to 61% for nurses from an ethnic minority background). The same study found that 64% of Nursing staff were working overtime to pay bills and 30% of Nurses plan to leave the profession in the next 12 months. Now you tell me; if you needed hospital care, would you want your ward full of nurses and NHS staff who are not only overworked but potentially under-fed due to financial worries?

Sadly this is the same story for the thousands of public sector staff who, if they haven’t had their pay frozen entirely over the last ten years, have seen it barely increase. Even hero of the BBC Rishi Sunak has frozen 2.6 million public sector workers’ pay, including for the likes of teachers who have done all they can for the last 12 months to provide education to all (despite the Government’s best efforts to make that as difficult a task as possible). This pay-freeze comes as a further kick in the head when considering that these public sector workers earn 7.9% less than their private sector counterparts once the likes of experience and location are taken into account.

We then turn to those working in the private sector. Whilst wages in the private sector have stagnated since 2010, house prices have boomed, rents have soared and the cost of living continues to rise. This is before you then factor in a pandemic that has left many out of work, on furlough, or needing to claim Universal Credit (a benefit that punishes you for your age or having the audacity to live in the midst of a housing crisis re. the bedroom tax). In addition, you then have the 3 million UK Taxpayers who are not eligible for any Government support that the campaign Excluded UK is advocating for.

As a result of what we have all done to fight back against COVID-19, more and more of us are going to be asking for more. Asking for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, a benefit system that truly is a safety net for those that need it, and a Sick Pay system that does not run counterintuitively against public health messaging. But all of us will be hit with the same tone-deaf response from the powers that be; “we would love to do that, but we have to think about the economy”, or (more likely) “that’s all well and good, but who is going to pay for it?”

To examine those questions, this pandemic has shown us all who should pay for it. Whilst the pandemic has cost workers £2.7 trillion, the wealth of billionaires has risen by an eye-watering £7.8 Trillion. So whilst thousands of UK Amazon workers, for example, were forced to continue working and getting supplies to those who needed them during various national lockdowns, CEO Jeff Bezos just sat back and watched the pennies roll in. When someone responds to questions of raising pay you are very quickly hit with “there’s no Magic Money Tree” (as then Prime Minister Theresa May happily told a nurse in 2017). In answer to that, it is pretty evident where the magic money tree does grow—in the offices of large corporations like Amazon and in their offshore tax haven bank accounts in the Bahamas. This is all money that the workforce’s toil has earned, not the bosses in swanky high-rise office blocks around the globe. With the Labour Party opposing Corporation Tax increases and the Conservatives having a habit of asking the likes of Google to only pay 3% tax on their annual UK profits, it appears that this Magic Money Tree won’t be harvested anytime soon.

All the sudden talk again of a Magic Money Tree is amusing after the UK Government seemingly pulled money out of nowhere for Government programmes to assist rough sleepers and secure 80% of workers’ wages through the Furlough Scheme (a policy which was only implemented due to agitation and campaigning from UK Trade Unions). Well, the answer is that the Government have taken advantage of record low interest rates and, as Jo Michell wrote in Tribune Magazine, the fact that “investors are now willing to lend to the government at negative real interest rates—effectively paying for the privilege of lending money to the state.” Now whilst schemes like Furlough have meant for many food in their bellies and a roof over their heads, what the Government has also done with these record low interest rates blows an even larger hole in their Magic Money Tree argument. Whilst borrowing on an unprecedented scale, the Conservatives have used this crisis to shift money to their donors, mates, and private sector allies on an unprecedented scale. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is happy with a £3.50 a week pay rise for nurses, was found to have acted unlawfully in awarding a neighbour a £30 million contract to produce Covid test vials (despite said neighbour having no prior experience in the medical devices industry.) This is leaving to one side the disastrous Test and Trace system that was handed to private company Serco which is set to cost the taxpayer £37 billion.

As a result of this increased public spending (be that wasteful spending or not), the talk of growing Government debt begins to set in. We are surely not far from the post 2008 financial crash days of Sky News installing a running ‘Government Debt Counter’ to scare households as the hundreds of millions tick over. However, a recent BBC News segment explained this better than I ever could, as a presenter and reporter mused on a fundamental question; who is going to recall all this Government debt? 92% of all of the Government’s current debt is owned by the Bank of England… so essentially by itself. This completely exposes this idea that the UK economy can be in anyway compared how a household economy works. There isn’t a balance sheet of outgoings and incomings that you have to rigorously stick to in order to keep a roof over your head. The state apparatus can be used to fund the projects, infrastructure and safety nets that we need in order to survive and thrive as a population.

So the question comes back to; who the hell is this economy working for? Be that before, during, or (hopefully) the backend of the pandemic? The ‘economy’ as a term is defined as “the system of trade and industry by which the wealth of a country is made and used.” Using that definition practically, if the wealth of this nation has been used to combat a public health crisis, why can’t it be harnessed and used to combat the Climate Crisis? Or to rebuild towns up and down the country that have been decimated due to decades of deindustrialisation? We can’t less this crisis be defined by the Sky News debt counter or allow the Conservatives to blind us with talk of balancing imaginary books. We must demand that we rebuild our society, and build it in a better way than it ever has been before.

The battle over nurses’ pay isn’t about just ‘rewarding’ frontline workers. Some will say “we’ve all had our own struggles during this pandemic”, and that’s exactly the point. There are the millions that have been excluded from Government support, of Universal Credit claimants being paid a pittance and furloughed workers whose 80% pay has seen them fall behind on their rent. The Nurses struggle is your fight, the UC claimants’ struggle is your fight and so and so on. Don’t let the Government divide us on some notion of ‘economic responsibility.’

In his 1933 novel Love on the Dole, Walter Greenwood wrote that during the height of the Great Depression, unemployed men would gather on street corners near newspaper sandwich boards declaring: ‘Prosperity in Sight, Trade Turning the Corner.’ He wore that “the same line appeared every three months or so. But the prosperity was an unconscionable time a-coming.” Similarly, we will start seeing headlines in the months about the UK Economy being in ‘Recovery’—ask yourself for whom? Is it for you, the nurses, the UC claimants, and the person on Furlough? Or for the bosses, the Tory donors, and the parasitic billionaires? What does GDP improving practically mean for you when rent is increasing, your hospital is understaffed and your wages are stagnant? We can’t allow this crisis to be fought within the same parameters as the Great Depression or the 2008 crash.

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