Brexit and Covid: Why a feminist recovery from both is vital for Britain – Dr Toni Haastrup

As we settle into another lockdown and despite the universal impact of Covid, it is no exaggeration to say, women have especially felt the brunt.

During the Covid lockdown, women have been taking on more of the extra childcare duties than men (Picture: Julien Behal/PA)

Evidence is emerging from across the world of Covid-19 deepening pre-existing inequalities by exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.

In Scotland, the unemployment rate has gone up, and is higher for women. The lack of childcare provision that has paralleled the see-saw of lockdowns has seen the burden of care shift mainly to women.

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The knock-on effect of this is an increased gender-pay gap that is likely to widen without intervention. And there have been no interventions.

In addition to the impact of the outbreak on women, we know that ethnic minorities and people with disability are most negatively impacted. Without a doubt, Covid-19 highlights the persistence of inequalities and the ways in which they overlap to the detriment of society at large.

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‘Fundamental Rights’ no longer guaranteed

However, the nature and scale of these inequalities is not caused by the pandemic itself even if it draws attention to them.

Covid in the UK is a crisis that is happening on the back of a decade of austerity and now Brexit. While austerity has been officially shelved, the ideologies that informed the policy continue to govern the UK not the least because the same party has overseen these multiple crises.

Four years of negotiations over Brexit came to an anticlimactic end in the 11th hour. Parliament had eight days to review the over 1,000 pages – excluding annexes – on the agreement. For those of us who have been anxious about the quality of democratic scrutiny, this last-minute push did nothing to mollify the concern that the UK government’s current approach represents a regression on rights previously guaranteed by membership of the EU.

The manner of the ending is an important insight into what’s likely to come. While the Withdrawal Agreement allows for the UK to roll EU guarantees of equality into law here, the Westminster government has also been clear that the UK will no longer be subjected to EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This means that secondary legislation like the Pregnant Women’s Directive, which provided the basis for much of the maternity rights in the UK is no longer guaranteed because it is now reversable. The lack of guarantee potentially jeopardises women’s reproductive rights in the UK.

Already UK government minister Martin Callanan has dismissed these guarantees of women and workers’ rights because their inclusion does not match up to the government’s post-Brexit vision of the UK. This is bad news for tackling inequalities.

Links between different inequalities

Unfortunately, the intense focus on the trade dimensions of the future UK-EU relationship has created blind spots to the greater impacts of Brexit on equalities, particularly of already of marginalised groups. As we begin to make sense of the impact of leaving the EU during a pandemic, it makes sense to think through how the Covid recovery can be used to leverage a post-EU future that is fair and just for the country.

The way forward must be a commitment to a feminist recovery plan.

A feminist recovery in future planning has, at its heart, a holistic focus that targets the linkages between different inequalities. Women’s rights and the rights of minoritised others must be taken seriously.

To directly address the immediate impact of Covid and build up a well-being infrastructure that works for everyone residing in the UK, there needs to be a substantive investment in the social care system. This requires enshrining the use of gender budgeting as the norm across the UK to highlight how public finance impacts on different types of people differently.

This new care system cannot exclude those the UK government designates as temporary immigrants who make up a substantial segment of the workforce. This means, for example, that the current no recourse to public funds regulation should be revisited.

As the architects of the current ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants, the current UK government will need a sharp course reversal if it is serious about tackling the current crises for a progressive Global Britain.

We also know that there has been an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. But the issues around domestic violence and the state response pre-date Covid and will persist beyond it if they are not urgently addressed. More and sustained funding needs to be dedicated for all survivors of domestic abuse particularly the most vulnerable, including transgender people.

Ethnicity pay gap remains

Reducing the gender and ethnicity pay gap must be a priority as Britain forges its path outside the EU and in the aftermath of Covid.

In 2020, the government suspended businesses’ obligations to report on gender pay gaps as an accommodation during the Covid outbreak. There is every expectation that this will revert back to the norm this year.

If this happens, it will be essential that employers to report the numbers of people who are made redundant, including breakdowns based on protected characteristics under the Equality Act of 2010. While the ethnicity pay gap is narrowing in the UK, it remains. To plug this gap means that a true living wage must be established across the four nations.

The promise of a feminist recovery in the aftermath of Covid and Brexit is absolutely essential for the future that Britain deserves. Such an approach must, however, concede the damage that the relationship between sexism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, class and disability play in upholding the inequalities on these isles.

Yet, if the recent speech by the UK’s women and equalities minister – a rejection of this reality – is anything to go by, sadly I do not hold my breath.

Dr Toni Haastrup is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Stirling

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