Our Covid tier system needs a rethink. It should be about support, not restrictions | Zoe Williams

If there were any justice to geography, Kent would be spared a Covid spike, having enough on its plate with Brexit-related five-mile tailbacks and whatnot. Yet not only has the county experienced unexpectedly high transmission rates, counterintuitively rising during lockdown, it is also at the centre of an unwelcome new development: R-number recriminations between very close neighbours.

The entire county will go into tier 3 restrictions after the English lockdown, at a devastating cost to pubs, restaurants and the local economy as a whole. Certain towns and cities in Kent, such as Tunbridge Wells, have lower rates than many places that will go into tier 2, and think of themselves, as one commentator put it, as being subject to “collective punishment”. Public health officials respond that there is no point making finer distinctions within the area, since a village with very low infection rates will soon see a spike if its pub is the only one open for miles around. This, while true, is the entirely wrong answer to the wrong question.

As urban geographer Danny Dorling has illustrated, infection rates correspond closely to a number of social factors, rising in areas where people generally can’t do their work from home; where parents rely on grandparents for childcare; and where housing is overcrowded. It’s a heat map of inequality, in other words.

The outraged citizens of Dover in Kent are variously blaming the residents of Swale and Thanet; drinkers; schoolchildren (that notorious power bloc); and, in one memorable vox pop, for reasons that were never clear, east Europeans.

The tier system, as it was devised over summer, creates a constellation of injustice: it takes areas where infection is only high because of pre-existing poverty, decimates those economies with targeted lockdowns, then blames their residents for the restrictions suffered by surrounding, richer areas. The sheer divisiveness of this makes our previous understanding of internecine regional battles – for brevity, call it the red wall versus the metropolitan elite – look like a fun tug-of-war at a village fete.

However, the obvious solution, which is to forget regional differences and put everybody under the same national restrictions, is flawed for another reason: lockdowns only work by consent. People are already only just tolerating the many contradictions forced by the rules: why can my mother see 15 different carers, but not me? Why can my kids see 180 people a day at school, but not their cousin, who also sees 180 people a day?

The better, indeed only response is to reimagine tiers not as a way to grade the severity of rules, but rather, to grade the generosity of support. So, in tier 3, your furlough is 100% of your wages, rather than 80%; your sick pay if you have to self-isolate is automatic and immediate; early-years childcare is free; your mayor is not forced to barter for emergency funds over amounts that Dido Harding could lose down the back of a sofa.

The implicit message of the first national lockdown was money-no-object, which is coincidentally when everyone started to find the chancellor so handsome. That needs to be explicit, to the point that a lockdown isn’t even the central trait of a high-infection area: the paramount measures are all about the protection of livelihoods.

Currently, businesses in Cornwall – which, as it will be in tier 1, will be able to remain open – are entitled to the same level of support as businesses in Leicester, which have been operating under some level of restriction since 23 March. Pub and restaurant chains, meanwhile, have been making a solid case that they should never even have ended up as the ground zero of behavioural control in the first place, since there is no evidence that they’re a driver of transmission. These arguments, while legitimate, are like playing whack-a-mole with Boris Johnson’s incompetence; what we need instead is our own moonshot.

The opposition has got itself into the absurd situation whereby Tory rebels are demanding better support for businesses, while Labour picks over the anomalies of the restrictions, looking to make a good clip at prime minister’s questions. Labour needs to forget what people are and aren’t allowed to do, and demand creative, generous solutions to what people need.

The economic fallout of the pandemic will inevitably be severe, but in the worst-case (and currently most likely) scenario, it will pit us all against one another, as we fight over who deserves a pay freeze, against a backdrop of mutual accusation postcode by postcode. What we really want is a vision for what it would take not only to manage the virus, but to heal the divisions that are spreading with it.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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