This report assesses the response policies pursued during the COVID-19 pandemic in six countries: Belgium, Croatia, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The analysis covers the first year of the pandemic (2020 – 2021), including 2022 when possible. Examining the impact on families, particularly in income protection, care policies, and work-life balance, the analysis focus on the unique challenges families faced during prolonged lockdowns and States of Emergency. Resilience, shaped by resources within families, communities, or national welfare systems, becomes a focal point. Whilst community cooperation was widespread, the study concentrates exclusively on national-level policy responses.
The pandemic disproportionately affected vulnerable individuals and families, with pre-existing economic conditions and societal readiness at play. A crucial aspect is the potential trade-off between health protection and individual autonomy which, modulated by the welfare state, suggests a delicate balance between protection and personal freedom. In contrast to the austerity measures in 2008, governments introduced diverse mechanisms during the pandemic to protect incomes and jobs. Job Replacement Schemes prevented mass employment destruction, while social policies acted as a ‘social shield’ against poverty risks. All European states increased control over health systems, hospitals, and the economy, emphasising the pivotal role of welfare states in interventions. The increased authority of states also led to temporary interventions fostering social policy innovation.
Despite shared goals, countries adopted diverse strategies across the three policy areas in our study. Concerning income protection, those with stronger and more inclusive welfare states required fewer additional measures, illustrated by the broader relief measures implemented by the United Kingdom and Croatia. Some countries enhanced their existing minimum income programs, whereas others launched new ones, such as Spain’s national minimum income scheme. In the realm of childcare services and education closures, most countries prioritised key workers’ children during the pandemic. Sweden was the exception, keeping the centres open to all. Parental and care leaves were also crucial for managing work-family balance, with Sweden, Belgium, and Poland introducing more inclusive policies than Spain. Finally, protection measures for older individuals aimed at enhancing access to personal protective equipment, testing, and isolation measures revealed shared priorities and variations in policy execution. Our findings show that welfare states, traditionally confined by limits, stretched their protective sphere beyond usual boundaries during the pandemic, acting as crucial economic stabilizers and social cohesion devices. The report underscores the role of the welfare state as a ‘risk absorber’, highlighting that inclusive and generous welfare states provide additional protection within existing frameworks. Particularly, anti-poverty policies like minimum income schemes prove more effective in addressing pandemic-induced vulnerabilities than weaker or less-funded interventions. Central concepts of inclusivity, flexibility, and complementarity stress the importance of social policy’s adaptability and consistency across domains. Overall, social protection systems embodying these traits seem better equipped to confront unforeseen risks amid the complex and volatile nature of the pandemic times. The long-term implications for welfare state reform remain uncertain, but the pandemic showcased both the limits and the adaptive capacity of welfare states in the face of unprecedented challenges.