Crisis makes universal basic income look like an increasingly good idea – Christine Jardine

A basic income for all is a concept that has been around for a while and the time may now be right to introduce it, writes Christine Jardine.

A bus employee wearing goggles and a face mask checks the temperature of passengers before they board a bus in Wuhan, where the lockdown has been lifted by the Chinese authorities (Picture: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
A bus employee wearing goggles and a face mask checks the temperature of passengers before they board a bus in Wuhan, where the lockdown has been lifted by the Chinese authorities (Picture: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

There was a photo-memory which popped up on my Facebook this week, the irony of which made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

On the day Wuhan lifted its Covid-19 lockdown, social media chose to remind me that it was exactly two years since I had flown out to China to visit that city and Beijing.

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Departing that day I had no idea how large this city, which I was only just beginning to learn about, would loom in all our futures.

I was travelling as part of a British Council Group of Westminster Parliamentarians to build links and understanding between the countries.

In Edinburgh West we are already quite well acquainted with Chinese culture of course, as home to that country’s consulate and two giant pandas gifted to the city almost a decade ago.

In the past few months, we have all become much more familiar with Wuhan itself, which was the first community to suffer the common pain which is being inflicted across the globe.

But as I watched the celebrations in that city later in the evening as its streets came back to life and the transport system sparked into action it also gave me hope.

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For so many people I am speaking to on a daily basis who are facing a loss of income, concern for loved ones or the knowledge that a simple trip to the shops could be fraught with danger, the equivalent moment here must seem very far away.

Perhaps that is why Thursdays have become so important, not just for the clapping but for the fact that another landmark has been passed and we might be a little closer to the end?

There are other landmarks too.

This past week we have had an increasing number of people returning safely from across the globe. Still not enough but at least the number is growing.

People I’ve come to know through distressing email conversations about difficulties getting home from Peru, India, The Gambia, New Zealand, or cruise liners have been repatriated after often lengthy or problematic negotiations.

One by one, the conversations have concluded with a delighted announcement that they are home safely. Not all are yet, but we are doing everything we can to add to the number of returnees.

Every time one of their homecoming emails drops into my inbox, my team breathes a collective sigh of relief but there was one that simply astonished us.

For a few days we had been worried about some people who we knew were on a yacht somewhere in the Indian Ocean and looking for somewhere to land safely.

On one of the daily calls with the Cabinet Office in London, I asked them to get in touch with the authorities in the next place we knew that they were heading to and make arrangements to get them to safety.

Remarkably about a day later I got an email from Foreign Office to say that they had contacted them.

It may seem like just one case in hundreds of thousands – and it is – but every little victory gets us a step closer to beating this thing.

When we do I suspect the world, and the way we inhabit it, will be very different.

Already we have seen an acknowledgement that we have not appreciated the thousands of people in our NHS and social care sector.

Our definition of front-line in this has changed dramatically in three weeks so that we now recognise the fundamentally important role being played by those willing to continue to work in our supermarkets, food shops and deliveries.

More than that we have realised the fragility of everything from our health to our liveliehoods.

This past week I have spoken to too many people for whom the many schemes offering furlough, business grants, support for the self employed and much more simply fail to offer anything.

This destructive virus makes no exceptions in who it attacks, and we have to find a way of making sure that there are no exceptions to those we can support.

It is a mammoth operation helping everyone from those who have been trapped while abroad on holiday, to those whose business has collapsed after decades through no fault of their own.

But we have to find a way.

This past week one of my many zoom meetings was with a group of like-minded people from all shades of the political spectrum.

We recognise that what has been missing in this has been a crucial element of universal protection which nobody realised the welfare state would not be able to provide in its current state.

Beveridge’s vision is undoubtedly one of those iconic British things of which we are all rightly proud.

But perhaps the time has come to realise that a new vision is needed to take it on for the 21st Century.

The concept of a universal basic income, something to which we are all entitled, particularly in a crisis like this one, is an idea that has been around for a while.

With every passing day, and every phone call from someone for whom we are still frantically searching for a way of finding support I become more convinced that it might be the solution.

Perhaps when we do reach the day when we are able to celebrate our own victory over Covid-19 we will have realised and implemented that idea.

If not I hope we will at least have recognised that its time has come.

Stay safe.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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