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We cannot afford to leave anyone behind in our response to coronavirus

"Working Families reports that legal advice lines have been inundated with calls from pregnant women who have been made redundant while men have been kept on." | PA Images

4 min read

The Government’s response to Covid-19 risks exacerbating existing inequalities for the most vulnerable. This is why the Women and Equalities Committee has launched an inquiry to examine this further.

In these extraordinary and unprecedented times, the Government has taken extensive measures to support and protect the population from Covid-19.

However, as the crisis deepens, some of the unforeseen consequences of the pandemic, the emergency legislation, and of other policies and plans are becoming more visible. We have already seen examples of the impact on people who may already be vulnerable and marginalised.

Women’s Aid, the Victim’s Commissioner and others have warned of the increased danger to women and children experiencing domestic abuse; isolated with the perpetrator and facing even greater barriers to leaving. The healthcare, education, support and housing/refuge services that identify and assess risk and support victims are under overwhelming pressures.

The rights of disabled people are also at risk. Inclusion London is concerned that emergency legislation dilutes local authorities’ obligations to provide adult social care support under the Care Act 2014, reducing the ‘duty’ to provide care to a ‘power’, except where a failure to provide care would breach human rights (i.e. in reality, only the most serious cases). In a joint open letter to the Government, the CEOs of Scope, Leonard Cheshire, National Autistic Society, Mencap, Disability Rights UK, Action on Hearing Loss, RNIB, Mind, and Sense have urged that disabled people's rights to assessments, care plans and rehabilitation are maintained.

Additionally, only a small proportion of children with special educational needs will still be able to attend school, and the dispensation for councils to reduce their support may have a profound impact. And while courts will continue to function by video and audio link, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that people with a learning disability or mental ill health can find it difficult to participate fully in proceedings remotely, risking their right to a fair hearing 

At this time of unprecedented emergency and great national anxiety, we cannot afford these failures

In employment rights, Working Families reports that legal advice lines have been inundated with calls from pregnant women who have been made redundant while men have been kept on, and others who have been told they must go to work or face the sack despite being categorised as a vulnerable group in Government guidance. 

The financial impact of Covid-19 measures will also be especially harsh for gig economy workers who have few protections in employment law, and who are more likely to be younger, from an ethnic minority, or have caring commitments.   

A recent article in the Lancet criticised the lack of gendered response to the Covid-19 outbreak, pointing out that “recognising the extent to which disease outbreaks affect men and women differently is a fundamental step to understanding the primary and secondary effects of a health emergency on different individuals and communities, and for creating effective, equitable policies and interventions.”

I would go further: we must apply this logic to all equality issues. As Government plans develop, it will be essential to understand the impact on individuals and groups who are already marginalised because of disability, race, sexual orientation, or any of the other characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010.  Otherwise, we risk failing to create the most effective interventions. We risk exacerbating existing inequalities and divisions. At this time of unprecedented emergency and great national anxiety, we cannot afford these failures. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind. 


Caroline Nokes is Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry “Unequal impact?” is open for contributions until 30 April. The Committee would like to hear from individuals as well as organisations, about the impact that Covid-19 and measures to tackle it are having on people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010:

  • Have all the relevant equality issues been considered?
  • Are there any unforeseen consequences?
  • If there are problems, what could be done differently or better?

You can find out more about this inquiry and how to contribute here. 

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