When the government first imposed a UK-wide lockdown in March, Britons were plunged into a great unknown – for the first time in most people’s lives, they were suddenly separated from everyone and everything they knew outside their immediate households.
The most vulnerable among us were especially hard hit by the sudden imposition of total isolation. Not being allowed to even cross their front doors, they were cast adrift.
But then something happened – a sense of community blossomed just when we needed it most. As UniteLIVE has documented throughout the pandemic, neighbours reached out to neighbours, working people risked their lives to save others and what was before a society that felt largely divided stood together as one, united by a common, unprecedented threat.
Unite members especially jumped into the fray to help out in their communities – whether it was Unite’s retired members phoning each other up with their new Unite Phone Buddies initiative; or Unite’s manufacturing members helping out in the national effort to produce life-saving ventilators or Brompton bicycles for NHS workers; or any of the hundreds of thousands of essential workers who kept the nation’s food supply going and the health service running, among other vital work.
Unite Community members as ever stepped up to the plate as they helped at food banks and worked with local mutual aid groups to assist those who were plunged even further into despair when the economy tanked and job losses mounted.
As lockdown eases, many now wonder if this newfound sense of community will persist beyond the confines of a national crisis.
Yesterday (August 25) the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a new survey about public perceptions of unity over division amid the coronavirus pandemic.
From April to June to as a whole, more adults on average thought that Britain will be united after we have recovered from the pandemic (46 per cent) than thought that we were united before the pandemic (24 per cent).
But this sense of unity broadly dissipated as lockdown progressed. In the first week of the survey in April, more than half of Britons – 57 per cent – believed we would be more united after the pandemic. But by June, this figure fell to just 28 per cent in the final week of the survey, which was in line with the proportion of people who believed we were united before the pandemic.
Women were just as likely as men to believe the UK was united before the pandemic, but women were more likely than men to report post-pandemic hopes of unity – about half of the women surveyed said they believed the UK would be united after the pandemic, compared to just 41 per cent of men.
The ONS research found that perceptions of unity were strongly correlated with higher average life satisfaction, happiness and feelings that things done in life are worthwhile. People who feel united are also more likely to check in on neighbours, feel like the community is available to support them and think people are doing more to help others.
Interestingly, public perceptions of equality in Britain remain unchanged by the pandemic – only 22 per cent of people thought the UK would more equal after the pandemic, compared to 19 per cent of people who thought the UK was equal before.
And while a sense of unity may have taken a hit as lockdown eased and a greater sense of normalcy returned, Britons still have held steadfastly to the belief that people will be more kind after the pandemic. By the end of the period that the ONS examined, more than half of Britons – 57 per cent – thought people would be more kind after the pandemic, compared to 46 per cent who believed people were kind before it.
Commenting on the latest research, ONS assistant director of sustainability and inequalities Dawn Snape said, “Today’s research shows that earlier in the national lockdown, people believed that a post-pandemic Britain would be a more united one.
“However, over subsequent weeks, this belief declined. Most people also expected that inequalities in society would remain. But interestingly, there is still a belief that we will be a kind nation, perhaps because of the many stories of individual kindness we have heard or experienced over this time.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner, who leads the union’s Unity Over Division initiative, which is aimed at equipping officers and activists with counter arguments to challenge divisive far-right narratives, called on working people to hold fast to the sense of unity brought about by the pandemic.
“The lockdown and pandemic really brought out the best in our communities, with so many people, our members especially, reaching out to help others, often at great risk to themselves,” he said. “From essential workers in food processing to the health service; to manufacturing workers helping in the national effort to build life-saving ventilators; to Unite Community members coming to the aid of society’s most vulnerable, we witnessed a truly unprecedented display of unity. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you were from – if you needed help, people reached out to do what they could.
“But as this new research from the ONS shows, we risk losing this sense of unity post-pandemic if we aren’t vigilant,” Tuner added. “Those on the far-right are again seeking to divide us – we’ve seen it recently, for example, in the likes of Nigel Farage stoking fear over the arrival of refugees. A sense of community, kindness and equality are all inextricably interlinked and if we hold fast to that community spirit that all brought us together earlier this year, we will emerge from this pandemic more united than ever.”
By Hajera Blagg