Guernsey Press

What about the other virus victims?

Guernsey’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been exemplary and a real community effort. So how, asks Richard Digard, will those plunged into real economic hardship be recompensed for playing their part?

(Picture by JoeBakal/Shutterstock)

A SKIM through the pages of this newspaper over the last few days made for very sad reading, with the Family Notices section recording the deaths of many islanders of late pensionable age and the majority of them at care homes.

The other big spike in confirmed cases of coronavirus infection is among the staff who were in the homes looking after some of Guernsey’s oldest and most vulnerable citizens – the implication in the figures being that care workers unwittingly spread it around the various establishments.

Questions, no doubt, will be asked about that and families with loved ones in care will be asking how safe they are and what happens in the event of a second wave of Covid-19.

Elsewhere, however, the infection figures are much healthier.

Rates are either flat or falling, which is why some easing of the current public health restrictions is likely to be announced at the lunchtime briefing today, unless there’s a sudden deterioration in the data.

For many businesses and individuals, even a partial return to a semblance of normality cannot come soon enough. All, I think, acknowledge that the authorities here have dealt with the pandemic crisis exceptionally. Unlike in Jersey, where ministers appear to have lost the trust and confidence of islanders.

But behind the headlines of numbers of deaths and infections here, other personal tragedies are playing out. While the lockdown has been a mild inconvenience for many, it is a disaster for anyone reliant on a weekly wage and already struggling to pay rent or mortgage. And while there is aid available, it is limited and late arriving. And only now is it offered to the self-employed.

As the Confederation of Guernsey Industry (CGi) has told the States, ‘time is of the essence and there is a critical need for government action – every day has a critical impact on small and medium-sized businesses’.

It is calling for a relaxation of the restrictions, particularly for garden centres, builders’ merchants, commercial cleaners, and construction, where health conditions and self-distancing can be maintained.

Its ongoing dialogue with the States has highlighted two areas: the economic need to get Guernsey back to work as soon as possible and how the financial burden of lockdown is falling on those least able to afford it.

That’s why it says a universal basic income should be considered if current restrictions continue or need to be reintroduced in the future. ‘Households will be coming under increasing financial hardship as their incomes remain severely reduced. Many businesses will struggle to pay staff as their cashflow deteriorates and will face pressure to make redundancies which will hinder the economic recovery’.

Elsewhere, other jurisdictions are offing high percentages of individuals’ current salaries. Here it is 80% of the minimum wage – around £6.80 an hour – which is why the CGi says economic recovery would best be supported if households received a reasonable basic income to help with living expenses.

Based on the financial hardship its members and their staffs are facing, the CGi is urging the States to scrap, rather than defer, employer social security payments for a period and delay for a year the above-RPI increases on property tax through TRP.

How we pay for all this can be looked at in another column but across the island businesses are running out of money and families piling up debt for simply doing what government has told them to do.

To that extent, the pandemic has revealed huge inequalities in the island – those having a ‘good’ lockdown: still being paid and able to order for delivery or shop for large quantities of food, and reliant on service workers still having to carry out their tasks, versus those whose means of earning a livelihood has simply stopped.

There will be political as well as economic consequences following the hibernation of the island’s economy but to date all attention has been on the progress of the virus, the death rate and ensuring the health system isn’t overwhelmed.

On the States’ own estimates, the number in hospital should be between 17 and 32 individuals. Happily, it’s just nine and a testament to the skill with which the disease has been traced and tested.

I’m not sure when the authorities will declare that Covid-19 is under control and start dismantling at least some of the restrictions but the time has come for a shift in perceptions about the lockdown.

As the CGi is saying to government, there are other victims of the pandemic in the island – the economic victims – and their voices haven’t been heard nor the scale of the hardships caused fully understood.

It will be months before the true emotional and human cost of dealing with the crisis emerges but there is a particularly raw question we need to be addressing now.

To what extent, if at all, should those least able to afford it pay the price in lost earnings, deferred rents, haemorrhaging savings or asking for loans for keeping the rest of us safe?