Walk through the City of London on a weekday and you will awash with crowds of busy businessmen and women, talking hurriedly on their phones whilst shuttling between Pret and their offices. If you look closely, you will see a subsection of society hidden in plain sight. Donned in more casual wear are the Deliveroo workers and the parcel deliverers, who with an equally frantic pace, also scuttle between city skyscrapers.
These are the workers who form Britain’s gig economy, the symbiotic product of free markets and diverse consumer choice. This economic phenomenon has led to the proliferation of companies such as Uber, who provide no material service themselves but instead act as a vessel for the façade of self-employment. In the UK alone, the gig economy has tripled since 2016 and now accounts for nearly five million people. Depending on your world view, or perhaps your relationship to it, the gig economy is either a revolutionary step forward that saved local economies following the death of the high street in 2008, or it is transfixed on the destruction of workers’ rights whilst simultaneously increasing working poverty.
Whatever your position, it is clear that the exponential growth of the gig economy currently has no answer to the exponential spread of the coronavirus. Due to its ability to transmit quickly and at times asymptomatically, it is currently hard to judge the extent to which day-to-day lives; and by proxy, the economy, will be disrupted by the virus. The severity of it should not be underestimated, however. The coronavirus currently has a mortality rate of 3.4%: this number may appear low but given its high infection rate it poses a stark threat, and it will be our grandparents and friends with underlying health conditions who will suffer the most. At worst, half a million people may die in the UK alone. It also has the potential to place a tremendous burden on the NHS, which at the moment is already operating at near full capacity.
The government has seemingly recognised the danger that is posed, and fears that at its peak, a fifth of the British workforce could be off sick at the same time. Due to the rise of the amount in ‘community infections’, it appears that the Government’s coronavirus action plan will promptly move from ‘contain’ to attempting to delay the spread of the virus. Naturally, this could be achieved most efficiently through social distancing. There are plans to introduce laws to give the Government the authority to advocate for this at the end of the month, and working from home will surely be encouraged.
Yet, what will happen to the five million people who depend on the gig economy for their livelihoods if they become infected and the bustling streets of London become deserted? A complete lack of safety net means that they are faced with an unenviable choice: they can either push through and work while carrying the virus and risk its further perpetuation, or they can stay at home and watch their income dry up, until they arrear on rent or mortgage payments and are kicked out of their homes.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister promised sick pay from day one for all those with suspected coronavirus. This is a pragmatic and welcome move that will provide relief for low-paid workers and Universal Credit claimants, yet it fails to cater for the self-employed and the gig economy. The Government must quickly rectify this, or it risks presiding over a deep plunge into poverty for hundreds of thousands of lives.
There will one day be a vaccine for the coronavirus, and normal life will resume. Nevertheless, for the time being, the coronavirus will shine an uncomfortably intense light on how we operate as a society. It is all very well for newspaper columnists to denounce millennials as ‘Generation Me’, and cry that they are too self-centred to adopt the collective approach needed to stop the spread of the virus. But, this short-sighted and divisive rhetoric completely avoids the fact that this hyper-individualism has been moulded by an economy that has created a shallow husk of a safety net for many people.
Coronavirus is an unexpected challenge to our economy, but its implications will not be anomalous. The gig economy will survive it, but it may fall against the challenge of climate change and mass-automation. If we are to learn a lesson from this pandemic, it must be that we need to evolve to a more humane economy.