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Government's Covid response has ‘ignored and even exacerbated’ gender inequality

Commons women and equalities committee warns pregnant women and new mothers have faced discriminatory and potentially unlawful treatment during the pandemic

GENDER inequality has been “ignored and even exacerbated” by the government’s response to Covid-19, MPs, trade unionists and campaigners warned today.

And they expressed fears that the clock could be turned back further as plans for the post-coronavirus economic recovery are made.

A report by the Commons women and equalities committee (WESC) warned that pregnant women and new mothers in particular may have faced discriminatory and potentially unlawful treatment during the pandemic.

Committee chairwoman Caroline Nokes said that the government’s response to the crisis has “repeatedly failed to consider” inequalities in the labour market and in care responsibilities.

“Government policies have repeatedly skewed towards men — and it keeps happening,” the Tory MP said.

The committee made more than 20 recommendations to tackle inequalities, including maintaining the £20 increase to universal credit and making it easier for staff to get flexible working arrangements.

They also include a review of childcare provisions to support jobseekers, reinstating gender pay-gap reporting, and reconsidering eligibility for statutory sick pay — with women currently overrepresented in the ineligible groups.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that gender equality risked being set back decades as many women juggle the “impossible situation” of working and providing childcare at the same time.

“Ministers must fix the UK’s lamentable support for working parents,” she said.

“That means giving all parents at least 10 days’ paid parental leave each year, making real flexible working available to all, and funding childcare properly.”

Fawcett Society chief executive Felicia Willow said the report recognises that equality is “fundamentally important” to society, not something that can be dumped during a crisis.

“[The report] highlights the failings thus far and shows how policies have ignored – and even exacerbated – gender inequality,” she said.

“The government must urgently implement WESC’s recommendations. Equality is good for women, for our economy, and for society.”

Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova called for a “gendered response to the crisis.”

“The unequal impact of coronavirus on women is huge – women are more likely to work in low-paid sectors, to work in sectors which are currently shut down such as retail and hospitality, and have taken on more caring responsibilities,” she said.

“The government cannot continue to deny and dismiss the reality of gender inequality across society.”

In a statement, the government said it “has done whatever it takes to protect lives and livelihoods” throughout the pandemic.

“We are safeguarding people’s jobs and incomes with economic schemes worth over £200 billion, including the self-employment income scheme for the 1.7 million self-employed women in the UK,” it said.

It came as a national inquiry into racial injustice in maternity care met for the first time today to make a call for evidence.

Supported by the Birthrights charity, it will examine how racial injustice is leading to poorer health outcomes in ethnic-minority groups.

Inquiry chairwoman Shaheen Rahman QC said: “Statistics show that black, Asian and mixed-ethnicity women are more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth.

“There are also concerns that black and Asian pregnant women are far more likely to be admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

“We want to understand the stories behind the statistics.”

The probe will consult affected families, healthcare professionals and human-rights and health lawyers.

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