Frances Brennan looks at how the coronavirus pandemic has heightened inequalities in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
‘The pandemic has deeply affected us all – but not equally.’
Those are the opening words of a report published last month by the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Called Unequal Britain, it studies attitudes towards inequality in light of the Covid-19 crisis.
There can be no doubt that coronavirus has brutally exposed and exacerbated inequalities in our society. Between rich and poor, high skilled and low skilled, different ethnic groups, different genders and different parts of the country.
In Cornwall, which is one of the most economically challenged parts of the UK, we have seen a raft of indicators about the economic and social impacts of the pandemic.
Unable to cope
And it’s clear our most vulnerable families and communities have been disproportionately hit. If they were ‘just managing’ previously, they are now finding themselves unable to cope.
We also have people who are experiencing unemployment for the first time in their working lives, and our economy has a higher than average number of self-employed, many of whom have fallen through the Chancellor’s safety nets.
The number of debt enquiries to Cornwall Citizens Advice has risen, including from single parents and young families, with parts of St Austell and Penzance seeing the highest numbers. In some towns like Newquay and Bodmin, between three and four out of every 10 working age people have been on benefits. And there are deep pockets of deprivation beyond our town centres, hidden in rural areas across Cornwall.
Impacts on mental health
Levels of incoming child welfare referrals have substantially increased, compounding what was already an upward curve.
Uncertainty around finances, housing and the impacts of social isolation have seen mental health referrals grow, with mounting evidence of the impact on children and young people.
More people have been seeking help from domestic abuse and sexual violence services. There has been an influx of housing and homeless applications during lockdown, and more households in temporary accommodation with children.
Police saw a 21% increase in anti-social behaviour complaints in Cornwall last year, and the pandemic has been especially challenging for people with drug and alcohol dependency.
Widening the gender divide
Coronavirus has also widened the gender divide, with adverse impacts for women. Research shows that women have seen higher rates of job loss, slower exit from furlough and more time spent on childcare and home-schooling than men.
In Cornwall, where 74% of part-time jobs are filled by women, we have the highest percentage of working women on furlough than any other so-called ‘upper tier’ local authority area in the UK.
Furlough among men in Cornwall is 6th highest, and we are 5th in the UK overall, reflecting our economy’s high dependence on hard-hit sectors like tourism and food and drink.
Covid-19 has also highlighted an education divide. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) said private school pupils were twice as likely as state school pupils to have daily online lessons during lockdowns and that ‘pupils from poorer areas’ were more likely to miss days of school.
Missing out on home learning
In Cornwall in January there were an estimated 2,000 children without access to a computer or affordable data to access home learning.
That’s why we helped kickstart a crowdfunding campaign which raised over £75,000 in just a few weeks to buy laptops and data dongles for schools across Cornwall to loan to families in need, and it was amazing to see so many local businesses support the campaign.
But the education divide goes deeper than that. The IFS highlights how graduates, who tend to be higher earners, have had their work disrupted much less during the pandemic than lower earners and the less highly educated.
Meanwhile, amid all this economic and social hardship, house prices in Cornwall rose almost 10% last year (compared to 7.6% nationally), to an average of £260,586 in November, putting more homes out of reach of local families, many struggling to make a living wage.
The art of the possible
But if coronavirus has shone a bright light on inequality, it will also focus the minds of policymakers as they plot a course to recovery. The Government’s massive and unprecedented interventions, while not sustainable at current levels, have at least demonstrated the art of the possible.
Whether that’s finding billions for furlough or fast-tracking regional infrastructure spending like they did last summer, there is an opportunity for our lawmakers to use the pandemic as a catalyst for real change.
According to the Unequal Britain report from King’s College London, the inequality people are most concerned about (61%) is the difference between the more and less deprived parts of the UK. (Gender inequality ranks a disappointing 28%).
Levelling up our economy
Those concerns about regional disparities chime with the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, by which it wants to pull the rest of the UK up to the economic performance of London and the South East.
The Prime Minister has pledged that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly will be left no worse off after Brexit. That means replacing the EU support we would have received with at least the same level of investment over several years.
It’s vital is that we continue to invest for recovery, not cut to save money. Otherwise it’s the people who can least afford it that will end up paying the heftiest price.
Frances Brennan is a director of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and chairs the LEP’s Employment and Skills Board.