OPINION: The Economic Impact of COVID-19 – A Birmingham View

Words by Ifor Jones – Head of Partnerships, The Pioneer Group / Picture of Birmingham skyline by Luke Matthews, profile pic courtesy of The Pioneer Group

As the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has become clear with the threat of a tsunami of redundancies across the West Midlands I couldn’t help but reflect on what I experienced first-hand with the closure of MG rover first hand back in 2005 with 6,300 redundancies being made.

This had a profound economic and social impact on local communities which was mitigated by the action of the MG Rover Taskforce. I led the community support strand of the Taskforce which started with mobilising advice services to work in tandem with JC plus and the Learning Skills Council and progressed with a community regeneration programme supporting grass roots organisations and focusing on providing support for workers and the MG Rover community.

The following sets out the learning and the lessons which arose from this tragic time which I feel are very relevant to the potential impact of COVID-19 across the City.

In the lead up to COVID-19, statistics for the first quarter of 2020 confirmed Birmingham’s comparatively high unemployment claimant rate (9.3%) compared to other major English cities.

The figure had been relatively stable but began to increase during 2018 in the wake of benefit changes connected to the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is my assertion that, when considering the potential impact of COVID-19, we will see two distinct cohorts within the unemployment claimant count for Birmingham.

  • Longer term cases clustered in geographical hotspots or demographic characteristics such as youth unemployment, BAME groups and people with disabilities.
  • Those who have lost their jobs as an economic consequence of COVID-19, across a range of sectors and impacting on an even wider cross section of the working population.

A Precedent for What’s Next

In 2005, MG Rover at Longbridge closed with the overnight loss of 6,300 jobs. Further job losses in the supply chain pushed this figure to over 8,000.

However, a significant number of workers were able to retrain to change their careers; undertaking academic vocational training. A report indicated around 4,000 (63%) of former MG Rover workers found new, mostly full-time, work. Approximately 25% of these workers were earning more with over 50% of them earning less.

Strong partnerships were key to the management and mitigation process, especially in relation to the social and economic impact of such a significant plant closure.

In a two-year period, I witnessed a shift from crisis management to sustained economic and social strategies for recovery. At the heart of this was a collaborative approach coordinated at different levels, from the very local in Longbridge and Northfield to across the city, region and nation as a whole.

My engagement through a localised team in the City Council was to co-ordinate the initial crisis response regarding advice and community support delivered in partnership with agencies such as JobCentre Plus and The Learning Skills Council. This was complemented with the support of organisations across the voluntary and community sector and, most critically, the MG Rover communities themselves.

Mobilising a response to administer change at pace was critical, as was building relationships with the workers and MG Rover to ensure engagement with and wider community buy-in.

The lessons that were learned, that can help us deal with the anticipated fallout of COVID-19 include:

  • mobilise interventions at pace working with both cohorts – existing and new claimants
  • get new cohort of unemployed into training and work as soon as possible
  • quickly intervene with training agencies and providers for re-skilling
  • ensure personal contact with individuals whether through advice and support or training
  • recognise importance of welfare advice and wellbeing services and administering benefits quickly
  • use opportunities for public service employers to take on and train former MG Rover workers, for example the city council created opportunities in youth, leisure and community development services
  • work in partnership – at regional, city and local levels – with public services, employers, community and third sector agencies
  • provide community support in the moment of crisis – e.g. helplines, social events, funding for holiday breaks
  • create a strategy for inclusive growth e.g. local area regeneration – Longbridge transitioned from a centre of economic activity of regional and national significance to an important local centre with a mix of new housing, retail, public services and some retained manufacturing.

Ifor Jones is Head of Partnerships at The Pioneer Group – for more on The Pioneer Group, visit: www.pioneergroup.org.uk

The Pioneer Group is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce, facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association.

Established in April 2020, the Taskforce is a network of local organisations from a wide variety of sectors, working together to support people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

To access the online address book and database of local support services compile by the Erdington COVID-19 Taskforce, visit: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19/local/support

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OPINION: The Clap

Words by Keat Moore

On Thursday evenings families gather on their doorsteps, driveways and balconies and wait. Then, at precisely 8.00 pm the quiet, lockdown-muffled, streets erupt with the sound of applause, drums, fireworks, and the clash of pots and pans.

‘Clap for Carers’ was started in the UK by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch woman living in South London, when she took to social media to encourage her friends to emulate similar displays seen in the Netherlands, Spain and France. It soon went viral, and three weeks after Boris Johnson told the nation they must stay home, households have seized the opportunity to break the monotony. Clap for Carers has now become an almost ritualistic display of appreciation and gratitude for the continued efforts of our NHS workers in tackling the pandemic.

However, there’s something about the whole spectacle that makes me grimace.

Before the word coronavirus became part of the world’s lexicon, the NHS had been fighting a lonely battle against the Government. Starting in 2010 with George Osborne’s austerity measures the NHS saw a dramatic slow-down in funding and a real-terms budget cut, it had to dig deep to shield patients from the financial impact of the cuts, at the cost of frontline workers who bore the brunt through working harder and longer shifts.

In 2016, then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt appeared to recognise the plight of the NHS: “Without its people, the NHS is just empty buildings… Fill it full of NHS staff, you’ve got something really special.”

He acknowledged the extraordinary work done by the NHS and its people, and for a moment there was hope that the NHS had finally won the battle, that this recognition of the commitment and dedication shown by staff would be rewarded. Mr Hunt then went on to announce that he’d be scrapping student nurse bursaries and introducing tuition fees.

The consequence was 900 fewer applications to study nursing as the country was facing a shortfall of 25,000 nurses. And it wasn’t just nurses who were subjected to this Annie Wilkes approach to appreciation, junior doctors were subjected to a 40% pay cut which resulted in industrial strike action from the BMA. The NHS had 6,000 unfilled doctor and GP positions at the time.

To compound the issue further, this happened around the time the UK had voted to leave the EU. EU/EEA nationals account for over 9% of the doctors and 6% of the nurses working within the NHS, respectively, let alone the almost 70,000 EU nationals working in adult social care –  that’s nearly 200,000 doctors, nurses and carers who’s future was, and still is, now uncertain.

The NHS has been battling on several fronts, for many years, against many governments, against many issues and against all odds – but now it faces a new threat, an unseen and lethal enemy, with the potential to decimate our health service.

Right now, they’re facing an impossible task which they are completely unprepared and unequipped for. In 2016, due to mounting concern that a pandemic would be the greatest threat likely to face the UK, the Government staged a nationwide pandemic preparedness drill codenamed Exercise Cygnus based on a fictional outbreak of ‘swan flu’.

The conclusions gathered from that exercise have never been released publicly, but local authorities who took part in the drill have noted that PPE supplies were an area of concern. It’s also worth mentioning that according to DHSC accounts, the value of the UK’s emergency stockpile (consisting of PPE, including respirator masks, gloves and aprons) had fallen by more than £200m between 2016 – 2019.

And now we’re witnessing the heart-breaking ramifications of those decisions.

It’s tragic that the true value of the NHS, if there was any doubt, only comes to the fore at the hour of our need, but it’s nothing new for the workers on the frontline. They have always been here, doing the extraordinary every day, and whilst the loss of life within the NHS is painful to bear we must try to keep in mind that the loss of life without the NHS would be unfathomable.

More needs to be done to ensure that the actions and gratitude displayed within the community marry up with the actions and decisions made in Whitehall; because when this fight is won, it will be hard-won by the brave and steadfast people of the NHS, and we will look to them when it’s time to nurse this nation and the community back to health.

I hope by then, that they will have earned much more than a standing ovation.

Keat Moore is editor of Erdington Local – you can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/_mr_moore

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