It is several months since the public was alerted to stark differences in the level of threat posed by Covid-19 according to their age, sex and underlying health. As the pandemic progressed, it became clearer that people of colour and those on lower incomes faced a heightened risk. Men in the UK have died from Covid-19 at almost twice the rate of women, with the most pronounced difference in older age groups. Among the working population, male security guards and taxi drivers have had the highest death rates.
The economic and social effects of the pandemic follow a different pattern. The lockdown meant thousands of women and children were trapped in homes where they were vulnerable to abuse, while women were more likely to lose their jobs as well as carrying a disproportionate share of the domestic burden created by the closure of schools and nurseries. They are also overrepresented in the caring jobs where pressure has been most intense: 82% of adult social care jobs are held by women, as are 89% of nursing and health visitor posts.
Commenting on this situation, one researcher suggested that society was regressing to a “1950s way of living”, with the crisis in the early years sector another cause for concern as women ready to return to work after maternity leave find themselves without childcare. Single parents, 86% of whom are women, have been particularly hard hit; so have BAME women, with one study finding 45% struggling to cope and 24% having difficulty feeding their children. There have been 3 million new claims for universal credit since March.
All of this would be bad enough. But the recession, which is expected to be the worst for 300 years, is also likely to have a disproportionate effect on women, who are overrepresented in the sectors where job losses are expected to be heaviest: retail, tourism, hospitality, the arts, as well as in low-paid, part-time work overall. With 9.3 million workers on furlough, and a buildup of rent arrears, the winding down of the furlough scheme and lifting of a ban on evictions are expected to lead to a big increase in the number of people facing hardship. A survey by the charity Turn2us found 42% of single parents anticipating living on less than £500 a month.
In the face of such chilling predictions, it would be reassuring to think that ministers were considering the needs of different groups. One of the simplest ways to help women and low-income families would be to increase child benefit. Yet while the government’s recovery plan appears focused on construction (“build, build, build”), women are notably absent from Boris Johnson’s inner circle. When the Conservative MP, Caroline Nokes, asked him recently how many senior women decision-makers would be “enough”, he laughed and said he was “not competent” to answer. By not publishing the equalities impact assessment carried out for the Coronavirus Act, ministers have restricted scrutiny of their decision-making.
The value of care has been a theme of the pandemic, along with a new recognition of the importance of schools, without which parents cannot work. Investment in the health, early years and social care sectors should be a theme for the recovery, as the Women’s Budget Group and others have set out. The Cinderella story of the UK’s public sector for decades, care for the very young, old and unwell urgently needs to be placed on a new footing. A greener, healthier, happier country would be the result. (In Sweden and Denmark around 10% of employed adults are care workers; to get the UK to the same level would create 2 million jobs.)
The pain caused by the pandemic will be severe and long-lasting. It will also be uneven. Unless the government changes course, and commits to a rejuvenated social infrastructure, the signs are that millions of women will take more than their share.