Lancaster University: New book flags up a watershed moment for post-Covid UK social policy

The pandemic has the potential to be a watershed moment for social policy, but this is not a foregone conclusion, say Essex and Lancaster University researchers.

They call for a human rights framework to be central to the planning for a post-COVID future for the sake of equity, justice, and sustainability.

Authors of a new book, launched on July 20, call for the focus to be firmly on medical care, food, housing, ‘other necessary social services’ and access to digital technology.

‘A Watershed Moment for Social Policy and Human Rights? Where Next for the UK Post-Covid?’ written by Dr Amy Clair from the University of Essex, and Dr Jasmine Fledderjohann and Dr Bran Knowles, from Lancaster University, is part of the Policy Press Rapid Response Series.

In the book, they describe the right to food, housing, medical care, and other necessary social services outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These rights were first adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and ratified by the UK in 1976.

“A human rights framework is valuable not only because it places human thriving at the centre of society, but also because the UN’s written clarifications on human rights in the decades since the UDHR was adopted have provided a useful roadmap for continually evaluating and revising policy. This is kind of active evaluation and revision is necessary to prevent misapplication of policies and resultant inequities,” says Dr Clair.

They warn that quick fix solutions and ignoring the contradictions in the prevailing system means the problems faced before and during the pandemic would continue to plague us. The book’s central argument is that now– as we consider how to rebuild society post-Covid—is the time to reconsider the core societal goals that have given rise to so much inequality.

“The political ideology that has shaped social policy in the UK (and many other countries) over the past several decades has created massive social inequalities, leaving some people marginalized and struggling to meet their basic human needs even before the pandemic resulted in the large-scale loss of lives and livelihoods,” says Dr Clair.

Rather than being the root cause of the inequalities observed during this period, the social problems observed during COVID-19 were indicators that large-scale, systemic change has long been needed.

In focusing on medical care, food, housing, and digital technology in the book, the authors identified five cross-cutting themes highlighted by the pandemic:

We are at a critical tipping point, and tipping towards a more equitable future will require active investment and effort.
Economic growth should not be the core goal of society. Human dignity and social justice should be at the centre of our goals as a society, with economies functioning in support of their attainment.
Neither technology nor charities are the solution to the social problems created by decades of erosion of the welfare state, as they release pressure on policymakers to make necessary structural reforms that would offer lasting improvements.
The predominant political ideology shaping social policy over the past several decades is riddled with contradictions that serve to marginalise some groups while benefitting the wealthiest and most privileged members of our society.
Human life has value in and of itself, independent of anything it may produce. Productivity is not the measure of human worth.
“There is tremendous potential for a more just and equitable society going forward, but we must choose this, and we must actively pursue it,” says Dr Fledderjohann.

“A human rights framework offers a useful alternative to the harmful ideology that has informed policymaking over the past several decades.

“Expecting charities such as food banks to offer individual-level support to people who have been failed by state policies while we ignore the contradictions in the prevailing system means that the problems we have faced before and during the pandemic will continue to plague us.”

Dr Knowles adds: “The expansion of big tech to solve problems during the pandemic is another example of how crisis response is failing to address broader structural contradictions, with disastrous consequences.

“Now is a critical juncture, a moment in which we can move towards a better future. It is our choice to make. An active commitment to shifting our social goals away from economic growth at all costs and towards human thriving is a necessary first step if this is to become a watershed moment.”