The precarity associated with this unprecedented global health crisis, Covid-19, has irrevocably damaged lives and livelihoods. Our economy is suffering, as is our mental health. People have been allowed to fall through the cracks in Covid-19 support. Even those who have been supported are confronted with an uncertain future. The pandemic has shed new light on the need to better fulfil Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights that states:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
In the UK we are lucky enough to have the incredible National Health Service (NHS) ensuring everyone has access to good and free universal health care. The amazing staff have bravely carried us through this crisis and deserve all the applause awarded to them on the doorstep in lockdown.
Other aspects of our welfare state, however, are could be improved. As with furlough and associated Covid-19 support schemes, many of those in need are missed completely. The selective, means-tested measures are exclusionary and overly-bureaucratic; costing the tax payers extra money for an inefficient and ineffective system. Those who do receive benefits are often stigmatised or face mental health difficulties associated with low self-worth or feelings of hopelessness. Others are ensnared in ‘unemployment traps’ where the risks associated with taking up an insecure job and losing access to the benefits they rely on for survival are too high.
Even now, as we seek to return to normality following a third lockdown, unemployment is uncharacteristically high. Jobs have been lost and businesses have failed. Isolation has been hard and mental health has floundered. We have endured a year of uncertainty and fear and it is a testament to British fortitude that we have soldiered on. However, the end isn’t necessarily in sight with a third wave in Europe threatening to wash up on our shores and an increasing number of people, through no fault of their own, are reliant on support from the Government. We need a reliable and universal way to ensure that everyone has the means to an adequate standard of living in accordance with Article 25 of the UNDHR.
Following the first lockdown many people called for a temporary ‘Unconditional Basic Income’ (UBI) to plug the gaps left by furlough and other Covid-19 support schemes. A UBI is commonly understood as a guaranteed, periodic cash payments made to everyone without means-test or requirement. This policy idea, previously perhaps confined to fringe academic circles, is now a common conversation topic in households across Britain. Its universal nature would mean that everyone would have been supported through this crisis and it would have gone a long way to alleviating the stress and strain of uncertainty in these precarious times. It would have significantly reduced the number of people who slipped through the gaps and would undoubtedly have saved lives.
There are also lessons for our welfare state in general, however. Many now label UBI as “our generation’s NHS” and it has the potential, if implemented effectively, to solve many issues associated with our current benefits system. As mentioned before, its universal nature stops people falling through the gaps whilst it also reduces the bureaucracy arising from means-testing and removes the stigma associated with selective schemes. It has the potential to improve both mental and physical well-being, as evidenced by trials in Europe and North America. It is also affordable and attainable and will help protect against future pandemics or crises of a different nature. There is a lot of uncertainty going forward, with the climate crisis and the alarming increase in automated jobs. A UBI would go a long way to reducing this uncertainty and ensuring everyone has the means to maintain a minimum standard of living for themselves and their families.