The pandemic has been a universal crisis but the impact has not been consistent across sectors, geographies or parts of the population.
It is a demoralising truth that if you are poor, a woman or from an ethnic minority you are more likely to have been negatively affected by Covid-19. A lot of the progress we have made in the last decade around employment and life chances has proven to be more fragile than any of us appreciated.
So the recovery has to be universal – even if the pandemic hasn’t been – and the emphasis of Wednesday’s Budget and the interventions that follow have to be focused on this goal.
The good news – and there is good news – is that we have achieved more in terms of digital transformation in the last year than we thought we could achieve in a decade. This means that with the right kind of investment and focus, there are any number of opportunities to engage a whole new pool of people in the workforce. At the start of 2020 less than 5% of the UK population had any formal agreement to work from home; by the end of March just over 65% of the workforce was working from home, and all sorts of sectors like health and customer service were rapidly overcoming the hurdles of remote working.
In terms of regional regeneration, and access to employment across a much wider demographic – the location of work is much less relevant. But while a lot of businesses have raced to digital form, a lot have been left behind. The investment to help 30,000 small and medium sized businesses through the new Help to Grow scheme, providing the digital and management tools needed to innovate, grow and help drive recovery, recognises the need to create a universal recovery, not a patchy one.
The Budget’s promise of investment in more apprenticeship and more training places matches a general consensus across business that one of the major barriers to recovery is a lack of the right skills in the marketplace. The UK isn’t ready for recovery yet with skills mix as it is. In particular, the best way to protect certain parts of the population from ongoing and long term unemployment is to expand the more resilient and robust parts of the economy – away from traditional retail, low skilled or mechanistic – and into digital driven, high value work.
Setting a Budget is always a tightrope between balancing the books and promoting growth and investment. But as the vaccine continues to offer us the prospect of a return to some kind of normality, we have an unprecedented opportunity to build the kind of economy and society we want. The Budget is one part of that; the rest – policy, innovation, commitment to engage business and the community – has to follow.