Comparing social policy responses to COVID-19 – the UK and Ireland

In episode two of the Generation Pandemic Podcast we compare the social policy responses to the pandemic in the UK and Ireland. We look at the significance of the policy landscapoe pre-COVID-19, what was implemented, and the impact of the different schemes on individuals, families and children. We discuss the longer term policy legacy of the pandemic response and how this might inform our reaction to further crises such as climate change. Joining podcast host, Catherine McDonald, are Dr Rod Hick from the University of Cardiff and Professor Mary Murphy from the University of Ireland, Maynooth. 

Here is a link to the research discussed. 


Catherine McDonald  00:05

Hello, and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network, looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine McDonald and today we’re comparing the social policy responses of the UK and Ireland to the pandemic. Joining me are Dr. Rod Hick from the University of Cardiff, and Professor Mary Murphy from the National University of Ireland Maynooth. I began by asking Rod about the policy landscape pre-COVID-19 and why that was significant.

Rod Hick  00:39

It was significant in the first instance, because minds were focused elsewhere. So as we note in the paper, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the UK, came on the very day that the UK was, was leaving the European Union. So the attention of policymakers was very much on Brexit in the lead up to those initial cases. But it’s also relevant, I think, because Brexit as a period was one where the relationship between the UK and Ireland was very much brought to the fore, not an easy aspect of those negotiations. But I think that lends itself to, I guess, the comparison that we made in the paper between the UK and Ireland.

Catherine McDonald  01:24

And Mary so as Rod has, has said there the work that you’ve done, compared to the UK and Ireland, why was that?

Mary Murphy  01:31

Well, I suppose there’s a logic for comparing the UK and Ireland in terms of the historical connections between the two welfare states. And the, the similar kind of liberal structure of the two welfare states. But it also gives a very interesting opportunity to look at path dependency in action, if you like in that we did, although they’re similar, we started the pandemic with quite different basic welfare systems in the capacity of the two countries to respond. And that, that meant for an interesting, almost natural experiment, in terms of how the configuration of income support sort of enabled the responses or configured to the responses that happened. So it was an interesting case in that sense as well.

Catherine McDonald  02:15

And what time period did your research look at? And again, why?

Mary Murphy  02:19

Well, to be honest, it was it was a moving clock in that we started this research very much at the start, you know around May where we had a chance to look at what had happened since March 2020. And I think we thought we might stop it in the end of the first wave. But things kept moving, as we know. So we ended up luckily, I think, for the work that we did being able to observe some of the ongoing responses as the second wave emerged. So we were able to kind of, kind of capture almost a year really, in terms of their responses. And so we were very much capturing a moving picture as was the world at the time, because nobody knew quite when things were going to start and stop.

Catherine McDonald  02:56

Absolutely. So let’s look at the initial policy responses. Rod, can you talk us through what the UK did, first of all?

Rod Hick  03:04

Sure. So the UK had two main planks to its policy response. There were initial changes in terms of the waiting days for sickness benefits, but those were pretty small. But the the two real changes were the introduction of furlough, on the one hand for people who weren’t able to continue working but hadn’t lost their job they were formally retained. And changes made to Universal Credit for those who were either unemployed at the time of the onset of the pandemic or who became unemployed. And those policy changes were really quite different. Furlough was perhaps the one that grabbed most attention of, for obvious reasons, on the grounds that it was a wholly new instrument rolled out incredibly quickly really. And paid a very generous or level, at least for for higher earners, paid up to 80% of earnings up to two and a half thousand pounds for retained workers. So really, a new instrument and a really generous level of paying for higher middle income earners. And then in for Universal Credit, this was increased from around £74 a week to £94 a week, this was the £20 uplift that there’s been a significant amount of discussion about.

Catherine McDonald  04:14

And Mary, what about Ireland? What were the initial policy responses in the Republic of Ireland?

Mary Murphy  04:19

Well, I suppose for people who are in employment still the same policy response was there as the furlough in terms of what was called the temporary wage subsidy scheme, and which was broadly similar in design in terms of the thresholds and the intention to keep people connected to their employment. What I suppose the biggest contrast between the UK and the Irish responses, more lay in the income support system. So Rod has described the Universal Credit being the main mechanism for supporting people who weren’t connected to employment, or who are marginally connected to employment in the UK and described how that was just a £20 uplift. In Ireland, there was a completely different response. In that they chose not to use an existing welfare payment, or to innovate a new pandemic unemployment payment, which was much more generous and much more administratively easy to get and keep than the the other types of welfare payments that were available. So this pandemic unemployment payment, instead of being paid as a 203 euro rate per week, which was the normal unemployment payment, this was paid at 350 euro per week on an individualised basis. It was given ex ante. So it was given to everybody who applied with a retrospective check on eligibility and means testing. So, in a way, it was a completely new departure for the Irish welfare system to have a payment that was very accessible, very generous, very individualised. And that was only tested for eligibility after the event. So this was a very different type of approach to the more low key approach, maybe in the UK, which was a much more less generous approach where, where people only got £94, the Irish equivalent was 350 euro. And so that those two were, they gave us an opportunity, I suppose to look at that issue of past dependency, whereas the UK already had Universal Credit, and decided to use that as the main mechanism. Ireland felt it had no real welfare payments that they could quickly respond to the crisis with, and therefore innovated this very quick response – pandemic unemployment payment.

Catherine McDonald  06:31

That was pretty incredible that they were able to do that then if they were coming from a base that had less.

Mary Murphy  06:36

It was administratively incredible. And it was politically quite interesting to see how quickly the political system could choose to respond to a need, you know, and ditch a lot of their previous concerns about you know, what was necessary in a welfare design system.

Catherine McDonald  06:45

And Rod can I come to you on that as well? How do you feel the two compared? So the two meaning the UK and the Republic of Ireland? And so moving on, what were the implications of these policies? Mary, can I come to you first.

Rod Hick  07:01

Sure. I mean one similarity that I think is is important is that policymakers in both countries realise they needed new policy instruments to deal with this crisis. So one of the things we see if we pan out and consider, what some other European countries did is they essentially lent much more on existing instruments. So sometimes those social security schemes might have been tweaked to make them a little more generous. But essentially, policy rested on existing social security instruments. In both the UK and Ireland, you have the recognition that existing schemes weren’t going to function and there needed to be a major supplement. In the UK that came via the furlough scheme in Ireland, both of the two schemes that were relied upon were novel. So I think that’s an important similarity. A key difference, I think, was that in the UK, the reliance on furlough was really much greater. It was more generous payment, then potentially, you know, for higher earners than either of the Irish schemes. And then there was a huge difference down to the level of payments provided via Universal Credit. And as Mary said, you know, that’s a that’s a product of a long standing, emphasis on rate restraint in relation to social security payments in the UK. So the uplift was only £20 a week, much, much more modest than the increase in payments to the pandemic unemployment payment in Ireland. And yet in the UK, that was viewed as a really major change and is argued by many people to be a success. And no doubt it was in terms of making a difference to family incomes, but the fact that that increase was only £20 also kind of shows us the, the somewhat limited horizons of social security policy in the UK.

Mary Murphy  08:52

If you look at it from the perspective of families or gender and child poverty, I think one of the implications in Ireland from the pandemic unemployment payment was it was a new focus on on inequalities. At first glance, it looks like a really strong and positive response in that each adult who found themselves unemployed had access to a much more generous pandemic unemployment payment. But in reality, a lot of families would have been traditional male breadwinner families, where the adult dependent or the qualified adult, largely the woman wasn’t working in the open labour market or wasn’t working in a recognised way. And they didn’t have access to the new pandemic unemployment payment. That family were really left reliant on the old welfare system, which was much less generous. It was 203 for the main payment and then a proportionate amount for the second adults and the child dependents. So I think from the perspective of child poverty, this wasn’t such a good solution really, and while we find it probably worked very well for a lot of younger people, for example, single younger people in the labour force, who have found themselves with a quite generous welfare payment. A lot of families who more traditionally had low paid work, and had only one worker in that family, they found themselves struggling to survive on the old welfare system, and with very little political attention on their situation, because everybody was focused on the pandemic, on unemployment and the pandemic subsidy payments. So the old welfare system trundled on with the same people in it at very inadequate levels. And I think that type of inequality entrenched in the context of, you know, just reinforcing an existing level of child poverty that was already there. And that is still there. So child poverty didn’t really get a look into some degree during this period.

Catherine McDonald  10:43

And Rod, what would you say about the UK? What what do you feel? Or what did your paper find were the implications of the policies in the UK?

Rod Hick  10:50

I think a key implication was the extent to which Universal Credit got a shot in the arm, if you like, as as a policy instrument. So this is obviously a policy that has been legislated for many years ago and rolled out over a number of years, and there has been significant delays in relation to. And you know, at the moment, pandemic hits, you have a lot of workers who became unemployed would have had reasonably complete national insurance records and and might have had entitlement to one of the remaining contributory Social Security payments that are available in the UK. But the government really emphasised Universal Credit as being the response for people who lost work. And indeed, the uplift only applied to Universal Credit, or this new means tested payment rather than the older contributory payments. So a key implication, I think, was that, you know, at the moment where the remaining contributory social security payments in the UK might have seen a resurgence in terms of caseload, the policy emphasis yet again, is placed on Universal Credit. And that gets solidified politically as a result.

Catherine McDonald  12:06

And so if we move on to look at what happened when the second wave of infections hit in October 2020, Mary, what did that do to what the Republic of Ireland had put in place?

Mary Murphy  12:18

Well, I suppose the hope had been originally and maybe the generosity attached to the hope was that these were always going to be very short term policy responses that the, you know, the first wave would be the only wave. So it became a gradual realisation that both of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, and the pandemic unemployment would be around for longer than was originally anticipated. So both of them were nuanced, if you’d like they were sort of squeezed down and reformulated slightly, to make them less generous, and to make them maybe a more longer term type of payment. And they continued on until very, very recently, as the two primary policy responses. I suppose what what the longer term policy legacy now, because of the longevity of those payments is whether or not the presence of something like the pandemic unemployment payment, as a more generous and less means tested type approach, has opened up a new type of demand in Ireland now for maybe more social insurance based payments, more wage related or pay related benefits. And there’s certainly political discourse about that now. It’s also revived an interest, I think, in reforming the welfare system towards basic income type payments. And there’s certainly demand for more innovative approaches to supporting key industries, like for example, the arts and culture industry, there is a demand that a basic income be used through the welfare system to support workers in that reemerging industry. So it’s quite interesting I think that because the payments didn’t get shut down very quickly, and they settled into a maybe a, you know, almost a two year life pattern, they have now been a little bit embedded in the policy system as well. And they’re giving rise to more, more challenging and more innovative types of policy discussion about potential income supports than we might have had prior to the pandemic. I’m not saying necessarily they will result in any of those policy outcomes. But I think we’ve had strong political indicators, for example, around pay related benefits. And that’s interesting to see. And likewise with some of the new innovations and new forms of basic incomes.

Catherine McDonald  14:31

And Rod, what about the UK? What happens here when the second wave of infections hit in October 2020, obviously, with the furlough scheme, I imagine it was the same thing. We all thought that that that first wave would be it, and it wasn’t, what would you say about the UK situation?

Rod Hick  14:47

That’s it – we thought it would only last a few months and realised that it wouldn’t. I mean, what happened was that policymakers tried to reverse the generosity of the furlough scheme, in particular. And took steps to amend the structure of that scheme in a variety of ways to essentially make it less generous over time to impose a greater degree of burden sharing or cost sharing with employers, which in a sense, was an attempt to also test that these jobs really were viable at all in the sense that employers would be willing to pay put something forward for these workers who were being retained at significant public expense, and essentially had an attempt to reduce the generosity of these payments. But government had to perform a pretty sharp, well certainly a total u-turn in the end, in order to impose that second lockdown. It became very clear that, you know, the political support that the feasibility of imposing a second lockdown was going to be dependent on workers receiving very significant levels of support.

Catherine McDonald  15:54

So with the benefit of hindsight, how would you both rate those policies now? Mary, can I come to you first on that?

Mary Murphy  16:02

I think with the benefit of hindsight, I mean, I don’t I’m not sure we have hindsight yet. Becasue we’re still in it for a start. And I suppose that’s a form of hindsight to begin with, is we can learn a lot from governing through a crisis in the context of the types of assumptions that were made about how long something would be, and what the needs are. I think, you know, one of the things that people often talk about in the context of the pandemic more generally, is that it reinforced existing inequalities. And we talk in our paper quite a bit about, you know, some of the gaps, some of the people who slip through the net. If we look at gender, if we look at ethnic minorities, we can look at a variety of people who weren’t captured through either the temporary wage subsidy schemes or furloughs or or the types of income support responses that there were. I mentioned earlier, as an example families with children possibly being a gap in Ireland in that respect. But I think as well, we began to appreciate better, I think, the degree to which people are dependent not only on income supports, but on the variety of public services around the income support that really make up the entire welfare state. So for example, we found in Ireland that housing was it was a very significant issue, and that it couldn’t really be addressed through income support, as in the primary payments, but a lot had to be done on moratoriums and rent increases and eviction notices, for example. So we would have found some policy responses that banned evictions that banned rent increases, and we saw a very significant decrease in homelessness and child homelessness over that period. And we see now as those kinds of restrictions are being taken back out of the system, and rent increases are allowed and evictions are allowed, we see, you know, an almost exact correlation with the increase in family homelessness and child homelessness again. So I think we have a lot of lessons to draw on with the benefit of hindsight about things that worked during the pandemic, and that maybe needs to stay in place after the pandemic, regardless of pandemic conditions, because they’re good in their own right, as policy, you know, decisions and policy frameworks to tackle major societal issues.

Catherine McDonald  18:13

And I guess that’s the thing, isn’t it, that when we talk about inequalities, children are often at the sharp end of those inequalities, aren’t they?

Mary Murphy  18:21

They are I mean, you know, I mean, if we look in both countries, I think, you know, the degree to which lone parents experienced the highest risk of relative poverty, consistent poverty, deprivation indicators, and the children of those lone parents are particularly at risk. And if you look at things like the intersectional inequalities, and you look at sort of migrant lone parents and their children experiencing a very significant risk of poverty, then we’re able to see where the targeting needs to be, but where the targeting often wasn’t in the context of the pandemic responses. So I hope with the benefit hindsight, we can learn some of the policy omissions that were made, as well as maybe some of the policy successes that we had, and, you know, learn from learning from both because I suppose one thing we we need to be mindful of is this pandemic gave us a glimmer of what it might be like to be in a permanent crisis. And we are likely to be in relatively permanent crisis in the context of climate change, and, and other types of very significant transitions that we know are coming our way very quickly.

Catherine McDonald  19:22

Absolutely. Rod, would you agree with that?

Rod Hick  19:25

I would, my thoughts or my take on the policy response is that what was really remarkable was the responsiveness of policymakers. You know, the fact that we erected these new schemes within days is is really the success perhaps, of the crisis and also showed us that that things can change and things can be different and we can actually, you know, be pretty nimble and make huge changes when the right moment arises. But I guess there’s one point perhaps where I’m maybe less optimistic than Mary is and it relates to the rather different political contexts between Ireland and the UK. So Mary spoke about how the pandemic had led to new political discourses for improved provision in a variety of areas. And to some extent, we see that in the UK as well, there’s certainly more discussion around basic income than there was a few years ago. Indeed, there’s a basic income pilot that’s about to be, that’s about to commence in Wales. So you know, that’s got people excited, and the Scottish Government are going to increase their Scottish child payment. So there is areas of innovation. But I think we have to also note, just the degree to which the increase to the £20 uplift to Universal Credit that the government in Westminster were able to reverse that. We’ve just had a budget where at least some commentators were expecting some improvement in the rate of Universal Credit that which didn’t materialise. So there’s real inertia. And I think that inertia is of great concern, not, not least, because and thinking about children, you know, one of one of the real issues at the moment in the UK, is that poverty rates for large families in particular, so for families with three or more children, are increasing and they’re diverging from child poverty rates for smaller families. So for families with one or two kids. And the key reason for this is the cut to universal credit payments that was made a few years back to larger families. So there we have an instance of a very regressive policy change which is having a quite a direct impact on poverty rates of some families with children. But in the context in which, you know, policymakers are slow to reverse the policy that they’ve implemented or to listen to evidence to the contrary, I think that’s a real concern for those of us who are concerned about child poverty in particular.

Catherine McDonald  21:57

And so, Mary, building on that, what should policymakers be focusing on now, would you say? You mentioned earlier that, you know, we could be in a in a sort of semi permanent crisis for a few years ahead. And also, this could all happen again, we could have a new pandemic, who knows? So what would you say about what we need to do to move forward and protect for the future?

Mary Murphy  22:19

Rod has suggested I was more optimistic than him a little while ago, and I suppose it is, it is almost a political position that I maintain is to try to be hopeful. We’ve been doing some work in the context of the island of Ireland and welfare imagination, and looking at devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in the context of some of the experimentation that’s happened about alleviating some of the impacts of welfare reform in Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular, and whether there may be some lessons there. Not so much to give us room for optimism, but more that gave us room for hope, I think, which is a different thing. To my mind, there are some interesting debates about welfare, including around child poverty, that look at what where the welfare state itself needs to be reconfigured, to enable it to be a more fluid mechanism to enable us to get through what will be decades and centuries of potential crisis. So it’s looking at the role of public services in a different way, it’s looking at income support in a different way. And looking at how the two need to work together much more clearly to try and provide the stability and the security that people will need to be very flexible and agile themselves in the context of the types of crisis they’re likely to have to be dealing with. So I think, you know, some of the work that’s done on universal public services gives us some sense of what we need to be doing. There’s some interesting work on configuring income support, not to universal basic income, but to different types of income guarantees and minimum income standards and basic incomes, that give us some sense of how we might look at the welfare system in a different way. And I think the importance of strong institutions, particularly at a local level, that really support families that really support children, and support communities, in the types of transitions that they need to make. So I think there are glimmers of what a welfare system needs to look like that’s capable of providing that kind of the, the underbelly of support for people to cope with the level of transition that they’re going to experience in their family lives, in their work lives in their lives as citizens, as we look at the decades ahead.

Catherine McDonald  24:24

Rod, would you like to add anything to that?

Rod Hick  24:27

During the pandemic, I felt a lot of the discussion was reasonably narrow. You know, there’s a lot of focus on the £20 uplift, for example, in the UK. There was a very good reason for that on the grounds that it was a critical period, a lot of academics and civil society actors felt like they could influence policy potentially or could try to press for change, and were perhaps relatively pragmatic in terms of their demands. But there’s really I think, a need for creating a whole variety of proposals in the space between those two visions if you like. But you know between the sort of highly pragmatic, incremental change of, of a small increase to universal credit, and a totally universal basic income on the other hand. And I think that space in in the middle has to engage with proposals that will provide a greater degree of economic security for individuals, for families that will, you know, we need to think about trying to reinvigorate a commitment to eliminating child poverty, for example. But it’s, it’s in that space that’s perhaps most needed that that actually, there’s perhaps not as much work being done. And I think that’s a real area where greater consideration scrutiny is, is needed. And it’s hard, you know, coming up with proposals that can be effective and that radically change things is not necessarily easy, but that’s certainly the territory if you like where I think new ideas are needed.

Catherine McDonald  25:52

My thanks to Dr. Rod Hick and Professor Mary Murphy. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcast production. Thank-you for listening and remember to subscribe to receive all future episodes. 


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