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“We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.”

A quote adopted by many to sum up the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying restrictions neatly describes the fact that this has not been felt equally. Since March, emergency legislation has been introduced on a huge scale with the primary aim of protecting lives and the NHS. As the months have gone on there has been greater discussion of the need to balance the response in a way which better protects jobs and education, and which prevents unnecessary social harm. The restrictions are an obvious interference with the rights and freedoms we enjoy in normal times and the effects of this interference are particularly acute to certain groups. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report on 20 October which looks at this and highlights some particular areas of concern.

The EHRC is a non-departmental public body which has responsibility for promoting and protecting equality and human rights across the UK. In particular, the Commission has an important role in enforcing legislation which prohibits discrimination or provides for equality with reference to the protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation). Its recent report raises concerns about the inequalities and particular hardships being faced by both young and older people, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and women.

One of the, unfortunately, least surprising findings is that several of these groups are being hit the hardest financially. The report indicates that existing inequalities have worsened, with a higher percentage of young people, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and women affected by a reduction in earnings as a result of unemployment or underemployment. These groups are more likely to work in the sectors which have been closed or heavily restricted, leading to periods of furlough, reduced hours or redundancy. The EHRC anticipates that the greater risk of living in poverty which comes with reduced employment could also have a disproportionate impact on these groups as the country recovers from the pandemic. However, it is possible for the governments to mitigate this with measures such as targeted support, and by ensuring the social security system is effective and accessible for those who are already struggling.

Age is also one of the characteristics which seems to be putting large groups at a disadvantage, both in the younger and older sections of society. The EHRC report expresses concern of a “lost generation” of the young people who are being disadvantaged by the impact on their education and job prospects.

When it comes to education, schools were closed for months with pupils forced to adapt to learning from home. At a very basic level, this created problems for many from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and to children with disabilities and additional support needs. It was found that these groups often lacked access to the resources and support which would normally be required to promote equal access to educational opportunities and attainment. The EHRC noted reports of a lack of access to school hubs and a lack of accessible online learning resources for pupils with disabilities in different parts of the UK. The point they stress as being paramount going forward is to ensure that there are adequate plans and contingencies to minimise disruption to education, particularly for the most vulnerable children. The problems with SQA grade moderation in the summer demonstrate that the wrong approach to tackling the practical difficulties with education during the pandemic can worsen inequalities rather than tackling them.

Towards the other end of the age spectrum, and amongst those with disabilities, there are concerns relating to social care. In Scotland, 50% of deaths attributed to COVID-19 have been in care home residents, and an increase in deaths from other causes has also been recorded. The response to the higher mortality rate amongst older adults and those with pre-existing health conditions has been to shield these individuals from coming into contact with the virus as much as possible. However, the downside of this has been the social isolation it has created. The EHRC has called on the Government to ensure that the future response to tackling coronavirus in social care settings builds human rights and equalities considerations into the framework to ensure that consideration is given to respecting all rights.

These are just some of the issues raised in the report and what is clear is that the emergency, blanket rules and policies implemented to address the immediate threat to health have created or exacerbated equalities concerns across the UK. With the speed at which normal life was disrupted by the virus, it is perhaps inevitable that the initial response was not as multifaceted as the problems caused, but even now, the discourse appears to have shifted to take account of some of the concerns emerging. Most notably, the focus on keeping schools open and education as normal as possible has featured heavily in the Scottish Government’s plan.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic and eventually move towards recovery, the tools are there to prevent the response worsening inequalities, and the EHRC have put forward suggestions as to how that may be done. No one is to blame for the fact a virus poses more of a threat to certain sections of society than others, and while governments may have to answer for certain decisions they have made, a flawless response to a novel crisis was unlikely to have been possible. However, as the Government looks ahead to the coming months and to an eventual recovery, there is no excuse for failing to take steps to address the equalities issues which are now apparent. Against the background of existing equalities legislation and principles, and with the findings of reports such as that by the EHRC, the law can be used in a targeted manner to help the situation rather than to make it worse.

Blog by Amy Haughton, Solicitor

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