Woman’s Place UK submission to Women & Equalities Select Committee Inquiry into Covid-19

About us

Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a grassroots feminist campaign which was formed by a group of women in the labour and trade union movement to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections. Over the past two and a half years, WPUK has held 27 public meetings around the UK, including a one-day conference in London in February 2020 attended by almost 1,000 women.

We welcome the opportunity to provide evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. It is becoming clear that Covid-19 and the public policy responses to the virus are having differential impacts on women and men.

Sex differences and Covid-19

The early evidence suggests that the mortality rate for the virus differs by sex, and that men are more likely to die from Covid-19 than women. It is vital that medical researchers consider sex differences when studying all aspects of Covid-19. Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, has written extensively about the way in which medical research has overlooked women and women’s bodies.

Given this evidence, it is vital that UK public authorities collect sex disaggregated data on Covid-19. Professor Sabra Klein, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies sex differences in viral infections, told the New York Times:

“We can confidently say from the data from many countries that being male is a risk factor. That, in and of itself should be evidence for why every country should be disaggregating their data.”

Socio-economic impacts on women

However, whilst we recognise that the mortality rate for women may be lower than men, it is also a fact that women are disproportionately represented in professions that are at the frontline of the crisis. For example, women dominate health and social care sector as well as public-facing service sector jobs, often on low pay, with the consequence that women are more exposed to the virus in their daily lives. A disproportionate number of BME women work in these sectors and are therefore likely to be more at risk.

The economic impact of Covid-19 is not being borne equitably by women and men. It mirrors pre-existing inequalities between the two sexes. For instance, women are more likely than men to fill the care gap created when formal care arrangements collapse. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), globally, women perform 76.2% of total hours of unpaid care, more than three times as much as men.

We also recognise that as health systems become stretched, many people with Covid-19 will need to be cared for at home, and those with other medical needs will be reluctant to go to hospital to seek medical support, adding to women’s overall burden. Women caring for those with Covid-19 will also be putting themselves at greater risk in addition to the stress of caring for family members they may not be qualified or equipped to care for. There is evidence to suggest that the virus is disproportionately affecting BME communities which will add to both the risk and burden for BME women.

Disability activists have expressed serious concern that the new Care Act Easements outlined in the Coronavirus Act 2020 which allow local authorities to relax the provision of social care will have a serious impact on the lives and well-being of disabled people. Again, such care will likely fall to women within the family and disabled people will have to cope without the support they need and are entitled to.

The closure of schools has left many parents, mainly women, with little choice but to take time off, or to try to work from home while caring for their children. It is clear the closing of schools hits women particularly hard because much of the responsibility for childcare still falls on them.

Those who are poor, working in public-facing service sector jobs that cannot be done from home, again mainly women, and those without paid leave are especially vulnerable. This again impacts women in greater numbers and particularly BME, disabled, low-income women and single mothers.

A survey undertaken by Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich Universities showed that women in the UK are more likely to have lost their jobs as a result of the virus than men, with 17% of women newly unemployed compared with 13% of men.

The same survey also revealed that on average during a typical working day, women in the UK are spending more time on childcare and home-schooling than men.

We would like to encourage the Committee to consider the briefing prepared by the Women’s Budget Group’s Crises Collide: Women and Covid-19.

Domestic violence

There is also evidence that incidences of domestic violence – a crime predominantly perpetrated by men against women – have increased during the lockdown period. Earlier this month, we called for urgent action to tackle domestic and sexual violence experienced by women and exacerbated by the response to Covid-19:

  1. Increased, additional, centrally administered funding for core services which must be maintained in the long term. This must include planning for the increase in demand for services when restrictions are lifted as many women will not be able to seek help at the moment. Such funding should be targeted at under-funded and specialist services which may not have benefited from generalised funding such as those meeting the needs of BME women, women with alcohol/drug problems or providing single-sex provision.
  2. An immediate commitment to repurpose the last Tampon Tax Fund to fund specialist women’s charities in the form of unrestricted grants. This fund was not previously ring-fenced and specialist women’s charities lost out.
  3. Additional provision of safe, properly resourced and staffed accommodation including specialist single-sex provision for homeless women.
  4. A guarantee that all restraining orders will automatically be extended until after social distancing measures are removed.
  5. Quicker Disclosure and Barring Service checks (DBS) to enable more efficient appointment of staff to specialist services.
  6. More central funding for specialist services to provide additional IT infrastructure, including the capacity to ensure that confidentiality/security issues can be enhanced, especially during this lockdown when women cannot meet in person.
  7. Additional funds to support women in refuges isolating and/or with the virus.
  8. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for those delivering face to face services.
  9. An amnesty on sanctions for those with insecure or no immigration status including suspension of ‘no recourse to public funds policies’ with a commitment to an end to such policies in the long term.
  10. Support for women in prostitution with a focus on facilitating an exit from the trade. This should include specific measures for those with insecure immigration status, drug problems and any other additional needs.
  11. Specific support to women accessing drug and alcohol services, many of whom end up ‘sofa-surfing’ where they are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
  12. End the presumption of parental involvement in s.1(2A) of the Children Act 1989. Centre the rights of women and children to live free from the risk of harm in Family Court decisions regarding contact with an abusive parent.
  13. Better protections around child maintenance payments to ensure they reach the primary caregiver and are not withheld as a form of financial abuse.
  14. Better access to emergency and regular forms of contraception and other sexual & reproductive health services.
  15. The provision of mobile phones (that are unknown to the abuser) and panic/alarm systems.
  16. IT companies to be responsive to women’s requests to identify on-line tracking, spying and stalking systems and remove them or find ways round them.
  17. Police and other agencies to look at their data on known abusers and take proactive steps to protect women and children from domestic violence, child sexual abuse and sexual violence. Ensure that multi-agency support to women identified as being at high risk of serious and repeated violence from known perpetrators, continues to be coordinated via Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), that high risk perpetrators are proactively monitored, and that the Domestic Violence Disclosure scheme continues

The Metropolitan Police reported that charges and cautions were up 24% from 9 March, when people with coronavirus symptoms were asked to self-isolate, compared with last year. The number of calls to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse helping was 25% above average during the second week of lockdown, and 49% higher than normal after three weeks. Similar patterns have emerged in other countries during periods of lockdown.

Pregnancy and maternity

Following the announcement that women who were pregnant were a vulnerable group these women stopped working and many were put on sick leave. This has led to a confusion with applications for The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). We believe that pregnant women should  be given a without prejudice route to accessing this scheme given the confusion that was in place and support the work of Maternity Action in this area.

At the end of March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued advice to governments requesting that they identify and prioritise essential health service, including reproductive health services. We welcome the decisions by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Welsh and Scottish Governments to allow women in England, Wales and Scotland to manage medical abortions at home. We would like to see the health authorities extend the same provision to women in Northern Ireland.

 Sex disaggregated data

WPUK has consistently highlighted the importance of sex disaggregated data. One of our initial demands called on Government “to consult on how self-declaration will impact upon data gathering – such as crime, employment, pay and health statistics – and monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap”.

We are concerned that many large data collection exercises in the UK are either no longer collecting data on sex or they are conflating or replacing data on sex with data on gender identity. We summarised some of our concerns in a submission to the Public Accounts Committee in July 2019.

We also remain concerned about plans for the census. The 2021 UK census will give us vital information about women’s experiences at a time when the effects of Covid-19 are very likely to remain a significant feature of our daily lives. All three UK census authorities are proposing guidance to accompany the longstanding sex question which will direct respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity. Eighty of the UK’s most eminent social scientists have expressed concern that this will imperil the quality of the data collected on sex, particularly for sub-groups of the population where existing evidence suggests there are higher rates of individuals expressing a transgender identity.

The census provides information that government needs to develop policies, plan and run public services, and allocate funding. It is also used as baseline data for calculating disease prevalence rates and the incidence of other social phenomena. Without robust data on sex, it is impossible to measure and remedy the discrimination and disadvantage experienced by women on the ground of their sex, or to consider the differing ways in which female bodies respond to pathogens and disease.

Other issues

Women in prison

We support calls from the Howard League to release women prisoners on remand, women serving sentences of 12 months or less for non-violent offences, women currently held in open conditions and women recalled to custody as a result of non-compliance with licence conditions where no further offence has been committed, with particular priority given to pregnant prisoners and those in mother and baby units.

Ill-fitting PPE

Both the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association (BMA) have highlighted the fact that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has not been designed for female bodies. This is hugely concerning given that women are over-represented in the health and social care sector, and must therefore be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Single sex spaces

We have consistently called for the single-sex exemptions contained in the Equality Act 2010 to be upheld. These enable the provision of women only spaces and services. The relaxation of measures under the Care Act made by the Coronavirus Act 2020 must not put women in danger.

Woman’s Place UK

30 April 2020

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.