The pandemic has united people but old attitudes to welfare are returning

The pandemic has been a shared experience, albeit one we’ve experienced very differently. Those at low risk followed restrictions to protect those in great danger. Billions of pounds were spent protecting those whose livelihoods were threatened.

A Conservative government built new arms of our welfare state overnight, benefiting millions who might never have received benefits before. The country was given a lesson in the reality that individuals’ economic fate often lies out of their hands: just ask the waiters, pilots and hairdressers who were made redundant.

Many hoped this lesson would be learned, raising support for the idea that one of the world’s richest countries should have a safety net that insures those needing it. Not so much is the heavy dose of realism provided by new research on attitudes to welfare during the pandemic: those attitudes have hardly budged.

In the first wave, there were signs of attitudes becoming more favourable, but they reverted as a semblance of normality returned. What’s going on? We’re seeing “Covid exceptionalism”, with the public thinking very differently about those hit by the crisis than about those falling on hard times normally: half of the public think Covid-19 claimants are more likely to be deserving than pre-pandemic claimants.

Now you can be depressed by this. Or you can recognise the reality that a better country isn’t something the pandemic will leave behind, it’s something you have to build.

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