Watchdog urged to scrutinise equality impact of pandemic response

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been urged to investigate alleged equality failings in the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which organisations say have deepened inequalities faced by women and underrepresented groups.

Two dozen organisations including the TUC, Amnesty International, Save the Children and the Fawcett Society have signed a letter that claims the government has failed in its duty to consider the impact that its policies have on groups protected under the Equality Act 2010 – particularly women, who are less likely to be eligible for statutory sick pay and have borne the brunt of caring responsibilities while schools have been closed.

Last week, a report from the Women and Equalities Committee expressed concern that the Government Equalities Office did not anticipate how inequalities were likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic and ensure that this was taken into consideration when developing policies covering employment, welfare, childcare and pregnancy and maternity.

The letter to the EHRC says: “This is a time of crisis for women. The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant and disproportionate impact on women’s health, jobs and livelihoods.

“The policy decisions taken by government and other key public bodies in response to coronavirus are worsening the impact of the pandemic and deepening inequalities faced by women. The consequences of these decisions will affect women for years to come.”

Under the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act, the government must show it has considered the impact on equality when making policy. However, the letter states that impact assessments were not carried out.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady urged the equality watchdog to use its powers to conduct an investigation into the government’s response.

“We shouldn’t have to do this, but ministers have stubbornly refused to review the impact of their policies on women as the law requires they do,” she said.

“If we don’t act now, women’s equality could be set back by decades and women’s and children’s poverty could soar.”

If we don’t act now, women’s equality could be set back by decades and women’s and children’s poverty could soar” – Frances O’Grady, TUC

Anna Whitehouse from campaign group Mother Pukka said: “Women are being forced out of the economy as the government watches on, seemingly nonplussed by the fact that we are going to wake up in 1951.”

The government said it has made an “unprecedented” offer of support during the pandemic, including help for sectors where women are more likely to be employed and childcare support.

“Every department considers equality impacts in their policy-making, and an equalities assessment of the Coronavirus Act was published last year,” it said.

The EHRC said in a statement: “While the pandemic has affected us all in different ways, we share concerns about the particularly negative impact it has had on women. The government has had to respond at speed to protect lives and the economy, and we have provided information and advice to government departments to strongly emphasise the need to consider the impact of decisions on women and individuals with other protected characteristics.

“While government focuses on the current crisis we do not consider it appropriate to use our legal powers, but we will be seeking to input into the promised review of the government’s response and decisions taken.

“We will continue to monitor the way in which the government responds to the ongoing equality and human rights challenges posed by the pandemic, and where necessary take the appropriate action.”

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