5 January 2022

The long tail of lockdown must not become endemic

By

After three national lockdowns since the start of the pandemic, the UK is still grappling with the long-term effects of these prolonged periods of social isolation. As the country battles with record increases in cases brought about by the Omicron variant, lessons must be learnt from previous lockdowns to ensure adequate support is provided for at-risk groups for mental health issues, poverty, and domestic abuse.

Whilst well-being has decreased across all demographics since the start of the pandemic, certain groups have displayed greater vulnerabilities to mental health problems. The Office for National Statistics found that younger adults aged 16 to 29, women, the unemployed, those unable to afford an unexpected expense of £850, disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable people were more likely to be experiencing depression than their counterparts throughout June 2020 to August 2021. Worryingly a recent survey found that the negative effects of lockdowns outlive even the lifting of restrictions, with 80% of respondents reporting that their mental health had not improved since the last lockdown ended.

As people face the prospect of spending another winter working from home, limiting their social interactions, and isolating if they catch Covid, mental health provision needs to ensure it reaches these at-risk groups. Like in previous lockdowns, NHS mental health services could increase the number of digital and over-the-phone appointments available to enable people to access support in a timely but safe way. Equally, implementation of the government’s ‘Covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan’ needs to be sped up to reach as many people as possible. 

But mental health does not exist in a vacuum. Other factors such as poverty play a role in exacerbating mental health issues among those with lower incomes. For any measures to be effective at reducing mental health problems, the root causes of the increased financial troubles some groups face need to be tackled. 

Since many of the support mechanisms introduced by the Government at the beginning of the pandemic, such as the furlough scheme and £20 top-up to Universal Credit, are no longer available, more people are struggling to make ends meet this winter. One area that policymakers should focus on is statutory sick pay (SSP). 

By international standards, the UK’s SSP is among the least generous; currently set at £96.35 a week, SSP accounts for less than 20% of average wages. This has led to a situation where more than one in four employees claim that they would carry on working even if they have symptoms of the Omicron variant because they need the money. Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has called for the Government to bring SSP more in line with the national minimum wage, meaning people would instead receive around £62 a day. Increasing SSP would help to ease the financial worries of those on low incomes, decrease the stress and anxiety that exacerbates or causes mental health issues, and alleviate the pressure some people experience to continue working when they are infectious.

Bright Blue’s research into the benefits and challenges of home working during the pandemic also found that those who worked from home experienced significantly higher rates of domestic abuse and violence. Out of 3,000 people surveyed, more than one in ten people (11%) who worked from home experienced domestic abuse compared to just 1% of those who carried on going into their workplaces. Alarmingly, an even higher rate of disabled home workers (27%) have experienced domestic abuse since March 2020 compared to only 2% of disabled people who did not work from home. 

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield, author of the report, explained that ‘the risk of domestic abuse for home workers during the pandemic may have been higher simply because they have spent more time in the home. Furthermore, the mental and financial strains on some people caused by the pandemic and lockdowns could potentially have exacerbated or triggered abusive behaviour’. 

With the Prime Minister re-introducing work from home guidance, we may well see another surge in domestic abuse. As a result, Bright Blue recommends that the Government introduces the right for workers to take ten days of domestic abuse leave. This would help victims escape dangerous situations; attend police or court appointments, and, seek out specialist support whilst remaining in employment. Such a policy would bring the UK into line with New Zealand and Australia, who have successfully implemented this policy, as well as help thousands of people trapped in abusive home environments. With work from home guidance likely to last at least until the end of this month, the onus is on ministers to act as quickly as possible.

With certain groups facing increased risks of worsening mental health, loss of income, and of experiencing violence in the home as a result of Covid restrictions, the Government must ensure support reaches those that need it most as Omicron cases soar and more people are thrown into self-isolation. We are getting better at controlling and treating the virus – we must not let the effects of lockdown on the most vulnerable become endemic too.

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by Ioana Diac is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.