It is already clear that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will dwarf that of Brexit. Yet both disproportionately affect the vulnerable. Eve Hepburn (PolicyScribe) explains why.
When the Scottish government published my report on the Social and Equality Impacts of Brexit at the end of January 2020, Covid-19 appeared to be a far-off problem in a distant land. My aim at that point was to map out some of the potential effects of different types of Brexit on our most vulnerable individuals and communities. I hoped this would be a valuable exercise, especially for public sector and third-sector organisations supporting equalities groups, given the absence of a detailed Equalities Impact Assessment from the UK Government. The report identified 137 potential ‘impacts’ on equalities groups, ranging from the loss of specific legal rights and benefits resulting from EU legislation, to wider impacts on people’s jobs and quality of life, due to projected slower economic growth.
Fast forward two months, and with Europe now the epicentre of the pandemic, the focus of the UK and devolved governments has dramatically changed. While the potential impacts of Brexit on equalities groups remains an ongoing concern, the greatest risk to the wellbeing of vulnerable groups in the UK – and indeed around the world – comes from Covid-19. Importantly, the impacts of coronavirus don’t just result from the spread of the disease itself (in medical terms), but also the government’s response to the pandemic – which has wider social and economic implications.
Social and equalities impacts of Brexit
The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020. However, after three and a half years of debate since the 2016 referendum, there remains a lack of clarity about what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like. In February 2020, the UK government published its negotiating approach, which confirmed its intention to pursue a basic free trade agreement (FTA) focussed on trade in goods with the EU. While the UK government plans to maintain high labour and environmental standards, it seeks full control over UK regulations. The aim is to obtain a Canada-style FTA, plus side deals on fisheries, data, judicial cooperation, transport and energy. This is not the comprehensive trade agreement outlined in the non-binding Political Declaration signed by the UK and EU in October 2019. In particular, the UK mandate rejects the ‘level playing field’ commitments of the Political Declaration and any role for the European Court of Justice in the UK.
The UK government has stated its intention to complete a trade agreement with the EU by the end of the 11-month transition period, i.e. 31 December 2020, and that it does not plan to extend the transition period by up to two years (which it may request up to June 2020). To keep to this tight schedule, the government announced that negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship will continue, but they would be conducted online due to the coronavirus. Talks have since been suspended. Despite this, the government maintains that the virus will not delay negotiations or necessitate an extension.
While Brexit will undoubtedly bring long-term systemic changes to the UK economy, politics and society, and there continues to be uncertainty about how leaving the EU might affect the lives of the UK’s inhabitants, the government has not yet produced a full equalities impact assessment examining the potential legal and socioeconomic effects of Brexit on different groups of people . This leaves a significant gap in our understanding: it is highly likely that vulnerable groups will be affected, and that there will be unintended consequences.
To that end, the Scottish Government commissioned research to map out potential impacts of different types of Brexit on social and equalities groups. It asked: what effect might the UK’s decision to leave the EU have on the legal rights and protections of individuals and groups in Scotland/the UK? Should Brexit have a negative economic impact, what might this mean for people’s jobs, spending and access to public services? These questions were examined from the perspective of 20 equalities groups who may face discrimination as a result of their personal characteristics – including disabled people, ethnic minorities, migrants, people who are or were in care, the elderly, religious communities, children and young people, the homeless and women.
The report identified 137 potential social impacts across such groups, including the loss of legal rights, employment protections, funding opportunities, healthcare rights, access to public services, community tensions, and – especially in the case of a no-deal Brexit – impacts on food, fuel and medicines. While some of these impacts reflect similar trends (e.g. the loss of certain rights/services), they are distinct in terms of how they happen, who they affect, or both. The research also included three case studies, providing an in-depth analysis of the potential social impacts of Brexit on women, ethnic minorities, and the disabled.
If the majority of economic forecasts are correct and the UK’s economy suffers post-Brexit, the negative effects will have an impact on all those equalities groups disproportionately represented in the low-income bracket (i.e. women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, refugees and asylum seekers, people who are or were in care, precarious workers) who rely more on public services and benefits and have less disposable income and spending power. For those living in poverty or homeless, or suffering job losses, these impacts will also be deeply felt. Brexit has already affected the mental health of these groups – due to the stress and uncertainty it has created – and for some, Brexit has resulted in increased hate crimes and discrimination.
Legally, Brexit will see the loss of the EU-derived rights and protections these groups currently enjoy, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees a freestanding right to non-discrimination. People will no longer have recourse to the rulings and case law of the European Court of Justice. Equalities groups are likely to lose EU funding (in particular, the European Social Fund). Everyone will lose their European citizenship (including free movement and access to EU consular protection), access to EU institutions and programmes (i.e. Erasmus, Horizon, European Medicines Agency, European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), and other EU social rights and protections that are not transposed into domestic law or which may come to an end (i.e. the European Health Insurance Card). How far these will be affected depends on the closeness of the future UK-EU relationship, trade agreements with other countries, and the UK’s post-Brexit policy agenda.
Social and equalities impacts of the coronavirus
The primary impact of Covid-19 is, needless to say, on the physical health of individuals. Research published by the government shows that elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions are especially at risk of severe disease and death.
But the effects are not just physical: pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and OCD, may find their symptoms increase with the stress, uncertainty and enforced isolation caused by the pandemic. People who must self-isolate – especially elderly people – may struggle. Those whose income is cut or who lose their jobs may suffer stress and anxiety as a result, and those who are already disadvantaged will find it even harder. Precarious workers in the gig economy are especially vulnerable, as they may not be able to claim sick pay or earn if they have to self-isolate, and they are more at risk of being let go if businesses need to pull in their purse strings. Homeless people are among the most at risk, with individuals more likely to have underlying health conditions, but without the means to self-isolate and secure their basic needs for food, shelter and sanitation.
Some foodbanks have already reported shortages due to panic buying. People who cannot afford to bulk-buy or pay more for food in short supply are at a disadvantage. Renters
Disadvantaged groups are also more reliant on the NHS (which is already under considerable pressure) and less able to access private treatment. These groups are also likely to be more reliant on public transport, which has been reduced in recent days, to do their food shopping because they have a lower rate of private car ownership. People caring for elderly and other vulnerable people affected by the coronavirus – who tend to be women – are also likely to be impacted, making it even harder for them to work. Meanwhile, those being cared for – including disabled people, elderly people and care leavers – may be deprived of vital care in the coming months due to a clause in the emergency Coronavirus Bill, which temporarily removes the legal duty of local authorities to provide social care to those eligible. Finally, some minority ethnic communities – especially East Asians – have experienced increased racism and xenophobia since the outbreak.
Brexit and the coronavirus – despite being wildly different phenomena – will probably affect the disadvantaged in similar ways, albeit to a different extent. Indeed, Brexit is likely to exacerbate some of the effects of the virus. The fact of leaving the EU will make it more difficult to fight the pandemic. For instance, the UK has said that it will not seek to maintain membership of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDP), which oversees the surveillance of communicable diseases, including coronaviruses; the European Medical Agency (EMA), which has a centralised procedure for licensing new drugs; or the EU Clinical Trials Register. According to a report published by the Scottish Parliament, this means that UK patients may not be able to participate in EU-organised clinical trials for life-saving new drug treatments, and the UK could experience delays in accessing new drugs. The UK is now being excluded from EU decision-making – and any collective support packages, for instance the EU’s Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative – on the pandemic. The loss of EU nationals working in the health and social care sector since the EU referendum, at a time when they are most needed, is particularly unfortunate.
People who face multiple disadvantage and inequality – with less financial and social resilience – are most vulnerable to both Brexit and the coronavirus. Measures should be taken not only to protect the health of our most vulnerable communities, but also their quality of life more broadly – including their financial security, mental health, access to resources, and social relationships. Time will tell if the Chancellor’s response to the outbreak will be sufficient to meet people’s core needs.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.