Coronavirus has spread fast in London, as it has in New York. But is London just an early victim, or can we expect COVID-19 to hit the capital harder than other cities and regions?
Earlier this week, London had around 2000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, about half the number for England as a whole. But that is hardly surprising: coronavirus has spread from abroad, and London has two major airports and a disproportionate share of international visitors. The question is: how vulnerable is our capital?
Let’s begin with the susceptibility of Londoners to the disease. At 5,600 inhabitants per square kilometre, the city is the most densely populated part of the UK, with smaller homes and higher levels of overcrowding. All this makes it hard for people to isolate themselves from each other, so hurrying the spread of infection. Paradoxically, London also has a high proportion of people who report being lonely some or all of the time, meaning that vulnerable people could find themselves without supportive social networks that we know are vital in crises like this one. London also has exceptionally high levels of poverty – 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty, compared to 21 per cent for the country as a whole. And people living in poverty are more vulnerable to disease. They tend to have poorer housing and diets, weaker immune systems and a greater chance of having underlying medical conditions.
The capital is also particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout from COVID-19. London is a business city. Some 86 per cent of London workers are employed in the private or not-for-profit sector – higher than any other region – and businesses and not-for-profits are much more likely than public sector organisations to make redundancies, impose reduced hours and fold as a result of the crisis. The nature of London’s businesses also means they are especially exposed to the present downturn. The city has a disproportionately large hospitality sector – all these cafes, bars, restaurants, hotels, theatres, music venues and galleries are having to close their doors.
London also has the highest proportion of self-employed workers – a number which has grown fast in recent years. 18 per cent of London’s workers are self-employed, compared, for instance, to only 12 per cent in Scotland. And self-employed workers find themselves in an especially difficult position. The various measures that government has introduced to support workers, including the Chancellor’s newly announced income guarantee for furloughed workers and grants for businesses, are unavailable to them.
London government finances also look particularly vulnerable. Transport for London took about £5 billion in fares in the last year, about half of its overall income and more than a quarter of the Mayor’s annual income – no other region has nearly such an extensive public transport system. But with the Mayor discouraging journeys on public transport (as well as suspending the Congestion Charge, the ULEZ and rents from many of its properties), while (rightly) committing to retaining TfL staff, we can expect what was already a large hole in TfL’s finances to turn into a chasm. The £2 billion plus cost of delays to Crossrail could soon look modest, compared to the losses incurred as a result of coronavirus. Let’s hope central government steps in.
Reports from China and elsewhere suggest that shutting down large parts of the economy has worked to cut air pollution and so, saved lives. London has the worst air pollution of any English region, so could benefit disproportionately. On the other hand, a high proportion of London’s air pollution comes from vehicles, and there is some evidence that the epidemic might drive up vehicle use, as travelers switch from public transport to private vehicles – a move encouraged by the suspension of the Congestion Charge and the ULEZ. The latest data shows that tube ridership has fallen by 87 per cent on a like for like basis, but TomTom’s road traffic data apparently shows a big increase in road congestion in Chinese and Italian cities.
But London is not at a disadvantage in every respect. On the contrary, the capital has the youngest population of any region – and this is a disease that hits the oldest hardest. Only one in every 10 Londoners is over 70, compared to two in every 10 nationally. London also appears to have a much better provision of emergency hospital care than other regions, with 30 per cent more critical care capacity than the much more elderly South West, for example.
In these respects as least, we can count ourselves lucky.
But perhaps the fundamental point is that every region and corner of the UK is vulnerable. After a period of intense political animosity, which has left different parts of the country feeling estranged, let’s hope, at the very least, that this epidemic leaves us a more United Kingdom.