Far from being a great leveller, Covid attacked some people more than others. Obese people and BAME groups more likely to fall victim to the virus. Domestic violence, child abuse and demand for child protection rose quickly under lockdown, but schools and social services were often powerless to help. So were lawyers and the courts in safeguarding cases. Why did the safety net fail some of the most vulnerable in society? How should it be fixed?
Some groups are over-represented in Covid mortality statistics. Did the government do enough to respond to what the data was showing?
People from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds have a greater-than-average risk of dying from Covid. Black people are three times as likely to die from Covid as white people.
There is a correlation between socioeconomic and occupational factors and increased risk of death from Covid for some ethnic groups:
“Our statistical modelling shows that a large proportion of the difference in the risk of COVID-19 mortality between ethnic groups can be explained by demographic, geographical and socioeconomic factors, such as where you live or the occupation you’re in. It also found that although specific pre-existing conditions place people at greater risk of COVID-19 mortality generally, it does not explain the remaining ethnic background differences in mortality.”
Ben Humberstone, Deputy Director, Office for National Statistics
People from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be working in high risk occupations. They account for:
- 14 per cent of key workers;
- 21 per cent of care workers; and
- 38 per cent of registered nurses
The overall UK workforce is 12 per cent BAME. (ONS; Skills for Care, 2019)
People in frontline occupations such as healthcare, social care, food retail and transport have been more at risk of catching Covid and more at risk of dying.
People with physical disabilities and learning disabilities have been particularly vulnerable to Covid.
Severely disabled men and women under the age of 65 have been 7 and 11 times more likely to die than non-disabled men and women. People with learning disabilities are 4 times as likely to die from Covid as the general population.
Patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease have also been at heightened risk of death from Covid. In the early stages of the pandemic in the UK heart disease was a comorbidity in almost 45 per cent of Covid deaths and diabetes in 21 per cent.
The safety net
The data on deaths shows that there was a failure to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society – the sick and the disabled. The safety net failed other vulnerable groups too: poor families and at risk women and children.
“Vulnerable children (including children in care, children in custody and children with SEND) have seen their rights actively downgraded – at a time when protections should have been increased, not weakened. The result is a rising tide of childhood vulnerability.”
Children’s Commissioner, Childhood in the Time of Covid-19, September 2020
In the week the UK-wide lockdown began the NSPCC saw a 32 per cent increase in helpline calls to report domestic abuse. That seemed to confirm fears that the stress of health concerns and financial difficulties during lockdown could lead to an uptick in domestic abuse and abuse of children. But with schools closed and fewer in-person visits from social workers, vulnerable children were more at risk.
A Birmingham University study found that referrals for child protection medical examinations – exams carried by doctors out to look for signs of abuse or neglect – dropped by around 40 per cent during lockdown:
As abuse increased, it became harder to get help. Calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 80 per cent in June and demand for services rose, but more than half of all agencies for abuse victims were forced to cut back their services, while 35 per cent had problems getting key worker status for their staff members. Domestic abuse workers are still not formally classified as key workers. Many service providers worried that vulnerable women and families would fall through the cracks.
Cases going through the Family Courts have been delayed by the pandemic. Sessions were moved online, causing difficulties for families without adequate internet access and distress for people unable to see their lawyer in person. There has been a huge fall in the number of Family Court cases started and the number of decisions reached:
The time families have to wait for decisions in care and child supervision cases has risen by three weeks on average, leaving families in limbo:
The move to remote hearings has meant added stress for troubled families. A consultation by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found that 88 per cent of parents and relatives had concerns and 66 per cent felt their cases had been handled poorly.
The pandemic has put extra strain on poorer families. Those claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit have been forced to cut down on essential spending:
- 72 per cent have spent less on essential items
- 43 have spent less on food
- 51 per cent report being behind on bills such as rent, utility bills and council tax
Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey, “A lifeline for our children”, June 2020
Many have turned to food banks to feed their families. Data from the Trussell Trust, a network of 1,200 food banks across the UK, showed an 18 per cent increase in demand for emergency food supplies in 2020. In April 2020, there was a 95 per cent increase in the number of parcels given to families with children compared with April 2019.
Demand for free school meals has increased. The Food Foundation estimated in October that 900,000 more children have sought access to free school meals in 2020. The government has u-turned twice on providing them: in June it initially refused to extend the service over the summer holidays and in early November the government u-turned on its decision not to provide free meals over Christmas.