Great Britain

COLUMN: 'Thanks Rishi, but Lancs still needs more help'

In Wednesday’s budget statement, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised to extend the furlough scheme across the UK until the end of September. This will continue to pay 80 per cent of employees’ wages for the hours they cannot work.

This is to be welcomed.

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council had about seven per cent of its working adult population in furlough as 2021 started, with a total of about 8,700 employments furloughed at the end of January.

The benefits of continued furlough payments will be disproportionately felt in London, where 10% of the adults in paid employment are in furlough. London also has a much higher proportion of salaried staff who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – rather than be ‘out and about’ in front line services during lockdowns, as a many more Lancashire workers have had to be.

London also had a higher percentage of people actually in employment and eligible for furlough before the pandemic began. So whilst all financial help is welcome – not all financial help is equal in its effects.

This matters not just economically, but also for controlling Covid-19 spread at local level. Economic security reduces Covid-19 transmission rates as it enables less social contact which brings lower risks of infection.

An as yet unpublished national report on ‘enduring transmission’ in areas of high cumulative case rates looked at Blackburn with Darwen, Leicester and Bradford to see why their risks of Covid-19 have remained so high over the pandemic.

The findings indicate higher risks are related to; higher than average deprivation levels, higher percentages of multi-generational households with a higher number of household members, often resident in smaller housing stock, higher percentages of employees in front line employment who have been unable to work from home or furlough during lockdowns or restrictions; higher percentages of residents unable to self-isolate when Covid-positive for financial reasons, and a significantly worse local performance of the national test and trace system.

The risk of those testing positive being unable to self-isolate is amongst the most significant for continued transmission and is mostly driven by economic insecurity. SAGE evidence suggests that only 15 to 30 per cent of people fully comply with self-isolation rules.

There is a self-isolation payment of £500, but it is too low to support a larger family and two thirds of applicants are rejected when they apply, due to the very high eligibility threshold.

For Lancashire, all of these risks have remained largely unchanged since last summer, when higher rising rates appeared in July after the first lockdown. These higher rates generated localised control measures across Lancashire from August 2020.

So raising levels of economic security is critical to avoid further localised lockdowns – but the government currently has no plan to address the evidenced inequalities of pandemic impacts in the north.

In both health and economic terms, Lancashire is carrying much more than its fair share of both the national risks and the national burden of the pandemic. In the budget, the government has been generous with its support – but it’s evident that Lancashire local authorities will need to continue to press the government for its ‘fair share’ of it.

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