The government has passed new emergency powers, known as the Coronavirus Act 2020, aimed at helping ministers deal with the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak across the country.
The measures were drafted in record time and passed in both the House of Commons and House of Lords in just three days, before officially becoming English law at 1pm on Thursday.
The bill strengthens the powers of the state, local councils, police forces, and health professionals in a bid to more effectively enforce the nationwide lockdown and prevent people from undertaking non-essential travel or gathering in groups.
Although the government said an equalities impact assessment was done before the legislation was passed (although it is not publicly available) the Women’s Budget Group, a charity which scrutinises government policy from a gender perspective, says the bill has gaps that will disproportionately impact women.
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), tells The Independent: “Though significantly more men than women appear to be fatalities of the virus in the UK, there are specific concerns for women [in the bill].
So what are the issues impacting women in the bill and why are they a problem?
Women more likely to be made redundant
“Women are more likely than men to be working in sectors now closed including retail, hospitality and teaching,” says Dr Stephenson. “As a result women are therefore at increased risk of incurring debt – including rent arrears – and poverty [during the ongoing coronavirus].”
Women, particularly BAME, disabled women and single mothers are already disproportionately at risk of poverty in the UK so this is more likely to impact them the hardest.
Despite this, the WBG points out there are no provisions in the bill for those who are renting, facing rent arrears or eviction notices because of lost jobs or change in income.
Women are more likely to be self-employed
[At the time of publication there were no self-employment provisions - this has now been changed so the government will pay self-employed people up to 80 per cent of profits up to £2,500 per month].
There are currently no provisions in the bill for self-employed people who are out of work or whose earnings have fallen substantially as a result of the coronavirus.
Women make up the majority of the low paid (69 per cent), zero-hours contracts (54 per cent) and part time self-employed (59 per cent) according to the WBG.
“Women are more likely to be in insecure and low paid employment like zero-hours contracts or a ‘disguised self-employment’ which means they should be on the books as full-time employees but are not,” explains Dr Stephenson.
“Therefore the government’s failure to provide for precarious workers is disproportionately distributed against women.”
Women are less likely to get sick pay
There are currently no provisions in the bill to increase the level of Statutory Sick Pay – despite proposed amendments to raise it to £220 per week, it remained at just £94.25 a week in the final draft approved on Thursday.
“This is not enough to live on,” says Dr Stephenson. “And women are less likely to be entitled to sick pay (because of higher self-employment) anyway.
"Despite being less likely to receive sick pay, women are also more likely to be working in professions exposed to the virus like health (77 per cent of workers), social care (80 per cent), teaching (63 per cent at primary level) and in supermarkets.”
“[And] there are anecdotal reports that PPE (personal protective equipment) designed for men is not keeping women safe. This also means they may be more likely to contract the virus and rely on statutory sick pay, although clearly it needs to be increased for everybody’s benefit.”
Women are more likely to be carers
There are no provisions in the bill to increase the carer’s allowance, which is currently just £66.15 per week. Women are overrepresented in care roles, both paid and unpaid and in the health sector. The majority of those in need of care are women too.
“The work of women again is being unrecognised and undervalued.” says Dr Stephenson.
Women are more likely to be looking after children
The bill does not make any mention of increasing support for those now taking care of children full time through child benefit or paid parental leave.
And despite many families now all working remotely or working from home (as mandated by the government if you are not a key worker), women will continue to take on the majority of childcare responsibilities and budgeting for the family home, says the WBG.
“Increases to Carer’s Allowance or Child Benefit would provide significant assistance to women,” says Dr Stephenson.
Women are more likely to be trapped with abusers
There are also no provisions in the bill for victims and survivors of domestic abuse who will be isolated with their abuser – the majority of whom will be women.
“Women are at significantly higher risk of domestic abuse. The lack of provisions (such as accommodation for women who become homeless) for survivors/victims as well as the threat of forcible isolation must be considered,” says Dr Stephenson.
Particular groups of women including disabled women, migrant women and Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority women will face specific and often more severe impacts.
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.u
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