In all the reporting on the impact of the pandemic on employment, one important factor has gone unnoticed. It is the private sector that is taking the entire hit, with public sector jobs almost untouched. That 25 per cent drop in GDP over the last six months is overwhelmingly contraction of the private sector. Throughout the pandemic I have been talking every day to people in the public and private sector, and there is a complete difference in attitude. It is like two different worlds. Private sector workers are grateful if they still just have a job, aware that so many are losing theirs. Entrepreneurs have been desperately struggling to save businesses they have been building up for decades. They have had to cut back drastically, close down whole businesses, try and reinvent themselves as something else just to keep money coming in. The Treasury has unleashed support schemes that are unprecedented in scope and scale, and for which businesses are incredibly grateful, but many have still been left desperate.
All the pleas for help I have had on jobs have come from the private sector, and for many of them it has been a genuinely scary time. Those on furlough are generally delighted – since it beats the alternative of unemployment – even though it usually means a 20 per cent pay cut. But all those nine million people on furlough are in the private sector, while the public sector has carried on with full pay irrespective of whether they are still working or not (some, like NHS intensive care nurses and HMRC officials have worked very hard, but some others have had little to do).
Because of the furloughing, economists predict a big drop in average earnings this year compared to last, but that drop will only be experienced by those in the private sector. Public sector workers have definitely had their own challenges and most have stepped up to the plate, but none have had the existential angst of having their livelihoods and dreams destroyed through no fault of their own, wondering how they are going to pay for their next meal, or whether they are going to have to sell their home.
It is noticeable that those in the public sector that I have spoken to have been far more reticent about ending the lockdown, because they have not had that financial imperative to do so. It is businesses in my constituency from garden centres to pubs that have been begging me to urge the government to lift the restrictions quicker. Not one public sector worker – such as a teacher – has urged me to do that. Because of the reporting lags, this tale of two lockdowns has not yet come out in the Office for National Statistics employment figures, but it will in the next two months. It will be worth paying attention to, not least to inform our response to the deepest recession in recent history. Just as private enterprise has borne the brunt of this recession, it will need to be at the forefront pulling us out.
Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and a member of the Treasury Select Committee