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The Liverpool docks lit up at night.
Peter Byrne/PA

Northern lockdowns shine a light on Britain’s landscape of inequality

After a brief return, freedom of movement has been once again withdrawn from people who live in the north of England. For residents of Manchester and Newcastle, meeting people from other households is once again prohibited, and in Liverpool, pubs and bars have been closed entirely except if they operate as restaurants and only serve alcohol with meals.

The apparent geographical unfairness of these restrictions has rankled with many. Despite having had few cases at the start of the pandemic in March, many parts of the north never really came out of lockdown while other parts of the country were able – and continue to be able – to enjoy far greater freedoms.

In this light, recent revelations that wealthy Conservative strongholds and recently acquired “red wall” seats in the Midlands and north of England are being spared the imposition of more stringent lockdown measures should surprise nobody.

As the world continues to seek solutions to this crippling pandemic, the presumption that “we are all in this together” is rapidly falling apart. Economic data from around the world shows how the novel coronavirus hits the poorest hardest, both physiologically and economically: a trend fully on show in the UK, where ONS figures earlier in the year suggested that the death rate from COVID-19 in the UK’s poorest areas, at 55 deaths per 100,000, was more than double that of wealthier areas, where it was 25.

Key workers

There are a number of reasons for this. For a start, the health outcomes associated with deprivation are similar to the risk factors for the worst outcomes of COVID-19, with obesity in particular demonstrating a strong cross-correlation. Yet while the overall poorer health associated with poverty means a poorer prognosis once the virus is caught, it only explains part of the picture. Both the mortality rates from COVID-19 and the likelihood of getting it correlate with geographic deprivation. There is simply more of the virus about in poorer areas, meaning more chance of getting it for those who live there.

In part, this is because people from poorer communities are more likely to be “key workers”: those without whom society cannot run and thus those from whom the choice to stay home must be removed. That’s why only 37.6% of workers in Yorkshire and the Humber region are able to work from home during the pandemic, compared with 57.2% in London.

A woman wheels a suitcase past a window decorated with a key and the word 'workers'
Key workers have no choice but to move around, no matter the risk. Andrew Milligan/PA

The constraints of these roles are geographically stratified, but they are also gendered and class-based: 60% of key workers are women, compared to just 43% of workers outside of key industries. In the UK, key workers earn 8% less than the national median, while the percentage of those working from home rises with every income bracket: figures that highlight how unevenly the most essential – and often most inflexible – roles in our society are distributed.

The upshot is that, as the Trades Union Council has put it, “a man working in an ‘elementary occupation’ is over twice as likely to have died from coronavirus as the average male worker, and over four times as likely as a man working in ‘professional occupations’.”

Second homes

Yet the ability to avoid COVID-19 exposure is a question not only of employment, but wealth itself. Second home ownership, or access to a second home, is a privilege closely associated with wealth.

At the start of the pandemic, those who could afford it escaped densely populated, high-risk cities for rural environs, minimising their risk of exposure by staying put once they were there. Exercising the privilege of control over their own movement, the better off were therefore able to recast their habitual mobility to their own advantage, while the worse off remained stuck in more dangerous patterns of movement.

Three stacks of chairs on a street at night-time.
Parts of the UK where people can afford to shelter in place have been less affected by coronavirus restrictions. PA

This trend was replicated and underscored by stark figures from New York in May, which revealed the extent of this mobile inequality. Confirming what many had suspected, the city’s best-off areas were not just quiet, they were half empty, with more than 40% of residents in the wealthiest blocks in well-to-do upper East Side, SoHo, the West village and Brooklyn Heights having left in pursuit of safer environs. Poorer areas on the other hand, continued to bustle, not only with sheltering populations, but whole communities continuing to work, shop and commute.

The freedom to move

Staying home in times of danger, the data reveals, is a luxury afforded to the wealthy. Yet this is no novelty of the pandemic. Rather, control over one’s movement – known technically as motility – has historically been and remains an attribute closely associated with wealth, a dynamic I cover in my book on the subject.

In our society, freedom of movement is an asset unequally shared and unequally realised. As the controversies over government adviser Dominic Cummings’ sojourn to Durham in May, the prime ministers’ father, Stanley Johnson, travelling to Greece in July and Scottish MP Margaret Ferrier’s return journey from Scotland to London, and countless other incidents make clear, the right to move as one pleases is a privilege so readily associated with power and wealth that the breaching of regulations merits scarcely a second thought at the time such decisions are taken.

It is the same story for freedom of non-movement: the genuine ability to stay home and stay safe was in reality only ever accessible to a sub-section of those instructed to do so.

Colourful houses in London.
Not everyone can stay home and stay safe. elxeneize/Shutterstock

The regional restrictions in the UK and elsewhere are no arbitrarily imposed injustice of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, the current crisis has laid bare the hidden intricacies of inequality that already existed throughout the western world, but especially so in Britain: a country more geographically unequal than any other rich nation.

As well as suffering most from the virus, the worst-off parts of Britain will suffer its harshest legacy. Any recovery plan – both here and elsewhere – must recognise and respond to this unequal reality. This has been a pandemic predominantly of the poor, but above all of those for whom mobility is not a choice, but an obligation.

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