Report shows scale of challenges Wigan faces recovering from Covid

Researchers from Sheffield Hallam University have been looking at the toll the coronavirus has taken on older industrial towns and former coalfield areas such as the borough and how it maps on to existing disadvantages these areas faced.

Wednesday, 27th January 2021, 7:00 am

Concerningly the report suggests Covid-19 has “wiped out” any progress made in a decade since the financial crisis of 2008.

It looks at the number of people who have died with Covid-19, how many residents have been able to work from home or been furloughed and how the pandemic has affected claimant rates for out-of-work benefits and Universal Credit.

Overall the report found old industrial towns entered the pandemic with older, less healthy populations, more people were exposed to Covid-19 in front-line jobs that could not be done remotely and there have been significant increases in those reliant on financial assistance from the state.

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A report looks at how Wigan and older industrial towns have fared with Covid-19

With former industrial heartlands lagging behind cities and more prosperous areas before Covid-19 hit, the events of 2020 have done little to improve the situation, although the picture in the employment market is not uniformly gloomy.

The researchers found that in many cases Wigan’s experience of Covid-19 has been fairly typical of towns in the category being explored, although some areas have had far lower case and death rates than Greater Manchester.

The report, commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the Industrial Communities Alliance, concludes that it is vital the Government returns to its “levelling up” agenda to help ex-coalfields and industrial areas thrive.

The report found there was a cumulative rate of infections in Wigan of 6140 per 100,000 residents, with a death rate of 231 per 100,000 up to January 4.

The borough case rate is notably higher even than the average for older industrial towns, which is itself almost 800 cases per 100,000 residents above the UK average.

Similarly Wigan’s death rate is notably higher than the averages even for ex-coalfield and former industrial towns, which are again above the UK average.

However, this is perhaps unsurprising, given that Greater Manchester areas, including Wigan at times, were in months of special restrictions over summer and autumn due to high case numbers and concerns about pressure on the NHS.

And public health experts have said they initially had even gloomier forecasts on how Wigan would fare with Covid-19 due to the age and health profile of the borough’s population.

The report says ex-industrial areas have clearly fared worse than big cities and some other parts of the country, with a death rate over 30 per cent higher than the national average as a whole.

Another reason put forward is that in older industrial towns fewer people have jobs they can do from home.

Wigan is estimated to have 38 per cent of roles that can be done remotely.

This is identical to the average for older industrial towns, four per cent below the GB average and main regional cities and 10 per cent below London.

The report also found that 31 per cent of eligible jobs in Wigan were furloughed under the job retention scheme as of June 30, a figure which fell dramatically to seven per cent by October 31.

This, though, was an area where experiences differed much less between towns such as Wigan and areas elsewhere.

Indeed, in the autumn older industrial areas like the borough actually had lower numbers on furlough and more people getting back to work as there were greater numbers of people in cities working in sectors such as hospitality or arts and culture which were still completely shut.

Nevertheless, the researchers suggest there is still considerable economic uncertainty, as the loss of just one in three of those jobs still furloughed at the end of October would leave 230,000 more people looking for new work in older industrial areas.

Wigan has also done a little better than other areas on keeping people in work and not needing state benefits.

Between February and November the borough’s claimant count rose by 3.7 per cent, with a nine per cent spike among 16-to-24-year-olds.

This is slightly better than the industrial area and national average overall but concerningly higher than both averages for young people.

And the overall claimant rate in November 2020 stood at 14.5 per cent, which is significantly above the GB average but below the grim average for former industrial areas.

There are also some areas in the North West and North East with a rate of 20 per cent for people on benefits.

The downturn has also affected Wiganers who need assistance even though they have jobs, with six per cent of Wigan’s Universal Credit claimants in work in October 2020.

This is identical to the rate for industrial towns as a whole, with the researchers describing the need for top-up payments as “a disturbing reflection of low household incomes and a huge increase since the start of the pandemic”.

They say any improvements to household finances and employment pictures in 10 years have now effectively gone.

And their conclusion is that politicians must focus on old industrial areas to help them recover.

The conclusion to the report says: “Older industrial Britain entered the coronavirus crisis lagging behind the rest of the country. The public health crisis was on average worse than in the rest of the country.

“The economic and labour market damage resulting from the downturn has been substantial.

“There must be an expectation that older industrial Britain will still lag behind most of the rest of the country when the crisis finally recedes.

“In the weeks and months before the pandemic the UK government made much play of its intention to ‘level up’ the regions. Older industrial Britain might reasonably have expected to be the prime beneficiary of this new priority.

"This remains an expectation among the voters in the Midlands, North, Scotland and Wales who helped secure the Conservatives’ general election victory in December 2019 and among newly-elected MPs from these areas.

“The problems of older industrial Britain have not gone away. Indeed, they have been made substantially worse by the new economic downturn.

“That there is a need to build a national economic recovery is indisputable, but there is also a pressing need to stick with the levelling up agenda.”

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