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UK government ‘failed to consider gender’ in its response to Covid pandemic

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Niall Carson/PA</span>
Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The government has “consistently failed” to consider gender in its response to Covid-19 despite men and women being affected in distinct ways by the pandemic, claim researchers from the London School of Economics.

While more men have died from the virus, women have suffered more due to the impact of policies introduced to prevent disease transmission.

Yet the subject of gender was largely absent from crucial meetings that informed the government’s response to the crisis, say academics, who analysed the minutes from 73 meetings held in 2020 by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

“Despite mounting evidence women have been disproportionately furloughed or made redundant while absorbing more of the unpaid work associated with the pandemic, we were concerned we weren’t seeing policy changes to reflect that, particularly ahead of the third lockdown,” said Clare Wenham, co-author of Why We need A Gender Advisor on Sage.

The assistant professor in global health policy explained: “The public has been repeatedly told the government is ‘following the science’ and given policy reflects the advice ministers are given we wanted to see if gender was being considered.”

During the pandemic women have performed more paid work on the frontline of the crisis and taken on more unpaid work such as caring responsibilities and home-schooling, according to the paper.

Yet out of 73 meetings, only 13 made explicit reference to gender terminology with further analysis showing these mentions all related to biological sex – for example that more men were dying and the risks posed by Covid-19 to pregnant women.

“The only inclusion of a gender-related concern within the minutes was in relation to young men being less likely to adhere to lockdown rules,” said Wenham.

Despite issues that significantly impact women being discussed such as schools, and social care and particular employment sectors, recognition of their gendered effects was largely absent.

Wenham said: “We found this alarming especially ahead of the decision to close schools in January when we already knew the impact of previous closures on mothers and single parents – 90% of whom are women.”

She added: “We don’t have insight into what took place off the record in those Zoom meetings but what we can say is that there was no reference to any discussion in the minutes of the social impacts of the pandemic on women.”

Research early in the pandemic showed there were 3 million people in jobs with high exposure to the virus and 77% of them were women.

“In light of this it is hard to understand why the government did not consider it crucial to ensure that policies recognised and address the gendered impact of this virus,” said Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group.

“Decisions to close schools meant that mothers on the lowest incomes are nine times more at risk of losing their job due to childcare responsibilities and 72% of mothers have worked fewer hours and cut their earnings due to lack of childcare.”

The government is obliged to have due regard to equality in all aspects of its work under the Public Sector Equality Duty.

“This includes ensuring that their policy advisers on Covid have expertise in gender,” said Stephenson.

Researchers at LSE said Sage members – made up of experts including epidemiologists, virologists, modellers and behavioural scientists – are not necessarily to blame for the “gender blindness” across the meetings.

They wrote: “Instead of looking at the approach taken by Sage we need to consider why a gender adviser did not have a seat at the table in the same way we might question why an adviser in black, Asian and minority ethnic integration was only introduced to Sage in June despite decades of NHS work and policy on ethnic health inequalities.”

Related: Women’s wellbeing hit harder than men’s during pandemic, says ONS

The gender parity of the meetings was also examined. Having more women present did not translate to increased discussion of the pandemic’s impact on women.

The average proportion of women among experts invited to participate in Sage was 33% with the highest participation being 44%.

“Covid-19 is a deadly virus that has affected everyone in the UK and we recognise it has had a disproportionate impact on certain groups of people, particularly those working in frontline and caring roles,” said a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson.

“Our new Women’s Health Strategy will help us learn lessons from the pandemic and take action that will improve the health and wellbeing of women across the country.”

Sage advice is drawn from a pool of more than 240 participants including 21 public health experts and supported by a series of sub-groups.

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