The divisions caused by COVID-19 have been top of people’s minds in the discussion groups that British Future has been running this week with people in Yorkshire and Humberside, writes Jill Rutter.
These conversations, with people from Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Rotherham and Scarborough, are part of Talk/together which, over the next three months, is engaging the public in a UK-wide conversation about what divides us, what brings us together and the policy change and practical action needed to build a more cohesive and socially connected society.
We were told that COVID-19 has divided communities in new ways, between those seen as following public health guidance and those who are not.
“If you look at the younger people against older people like myself, I think we are divided. Like, we are sort of shielding most of our street and doing the right thing. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that everyone is and they’re the ones at the moment that are passing on the virus to other people. And that’s why we’re in the situation that we’re in at the moment. And if you’re not careful, you know, we’re almost at another national lockdown. And that’s because people, some people, not everybody, are just not taking the government’s advice and act as if there is no virus at all.” (Talk/Together participant, Leeds).
Wearing a mask has almost become a tribal marker. While people felt most of their neighbours were acting responsibly, there was also some apportioning of blame for the spread of the virus on certain social groups: young people, students, Londoners, people who lived in certain parts of town and, occasionally, ethnic and faith minority groups. But this last view was debated openly, as most people were also conscious that it is easy to form stereotypes and blame whole groups for the actions of a well-publicised few. People also described the charitable work of mosques and churches in running foodbanks during the lockdown, an effort that was appreciated by people from a wide range of backgrounds and views.
Most of the people we met felt worn down by bad news, confused about public health guidance, angry at politicians, very anxious about the economic impacts of COVID-19 and not looking forward to winter cold and a Christmas without family gatherings and parties. This mood may lift, but it was a constant of the discussions this week.
Although COVID-19 dominated the discussions, concerns about other types of divisions are still prominent in people’s minds. These included long-standing (and pre-virus) wealth divides, Brexit, immigration and the power of the media and social platforms to talk up divisions and spread hatred.
“I think that people have varying views about a lot of different issues. And I think that the two that certainly spring to mind, would be immigration and Brexit. It seems to be very, very prominent in in the way that the media reports news, and certainly within our own community. Obviously, we’re all different. We all have different opinions. But I think a lot of people at the moment are certainly still divided on those two topics.” (Talk/Together participant, Rotherham).
On a more optimistic note, there was still a sense that the COVID-19 crisis had brought communities together. In the report that we put out in the summer, we described people’s wish to hold on to and harness the community spirit that was so evident in the early days of lockdown. This desire is still there and there were lots of suggestions about how this might be achieved. Street parties, events involving food, volunteering, charity fundraising, sport, and public concerts were popular suggestions.
We had participants from Hull in some of the discussions, who talked about Hull City of Culture 2017 which they felt had brought their city together. We were told “it made us proud, there was something going on every day and stuff for everyone.” Many people also talked about Clap for Carers and the VE Day commemorations in May, and how these national events had brought people together.
Many of these proposals were similar to those set out in a new report published this week by Danny Kruger MP. He was asked by the Prime Minister to look at ways to sustain the community spirit of lockdown. There is certainly the political will to achieve this and as Talk/Together progresses we will make sure that the Government is made aware of our findings.
In the next 12 weeks we will be holding similar discussions in every region and nation of the UK and we will also undertake a nationally representative poll. There is an open survey that everyone is invited to fill in. We are also encouraging people to hold their own discussions and to share ideas and projects that work to bridge divides. COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of community and social connection. There is a will to build a better future. So please do get involved.
Please share your views as part of Talk/together by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk