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It’s Not Enough: Why COVID-19 must be embedded into the Equality Act as a Protected Characteristic.

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

By Dr Suriyah Bi

Unprecedentedly, Covid-19 has released our global community into uncertain times. However, during these uncertain times, one factor has remained certain; the gap between the billionaire class and the rich and famous, and the rest of society. In the past week we have seen Richard Branson call on the government to issue a 7.5 billion bail-out for his airline using tax payer’s money despite his own ability to offer staff financial support, which would barely cause a scratch to his personal wealth. Put differently, if he offered all staff £500 a week, this would amount to a 17.06 pence loss if you had twenty pounds. Christiano Ronaldo quarantined himself and his family on an island brought specifically to out see the pandemic, Tom Hanks and Idris Elba are amongst celebrities who have managed to gain tests, and a private Harley Street Clinic is selling COVID-19 tests for £375 while the rest of society including the most vulnerable and frontline NHS staff, still largely remain untested. These are uncertain times for sure, but not for the billionaire class, the rich, and famous.

A digital illustration of the coronavirus. Source,UN:

The Government has introduced the Coronavirus Bill as a purely temporary measure proportionate to the threat level. But it’s not enough. Given the way in which the gap between the rich and the rest of society has been laid bare, it is crucial that the bill is embedded directly into the Equality Act 2010. In fact, given my broader work on calling Parliament to review the Equality Act 2010 both in the primary and secondary legislation with the aim to strengthen it, the campaign will now also be calling for the government to make provisions for such global crisis, within the Equality Act. In such times, it is the vulnerable in society that must be prioritised and treated with dignity, not those who have already greased their pockets. The only way to ensure protection is to ensure such statements by Richard Branson are legally classed as discriminatory on the grounds of socioeconomic background, which is currently not a protected characteristic, but one that the Equality Act Review campaign calls to be added to the Act.

Similarly, the campaign has called for homelessness to be included as a protected characteristic, as homelessness can and does give rise to discrimination especially in relation to employment. However, with COVID-19, the homeless are a high-risk group, many with already underlying health conditions. The 7.5 billion pay out requested by Richard Branson can be better spent protecting amongst others, the homeless but it is not until we change the script, until we change the primary legislation to include homelessness as a protected characteristic, that the Richard Branson’s of the world will no longer churn out discriminatory statements. Their pressures on the government will also be seen as discriminatory, and the government’s failure to act in the interest of the people will also be treated as unlawful under the act.

The nation-wide fears around job security, especially those within the gig industry on zero hour and precarious contracts have been long ignored. COVID-19 presents a threat to these workers and their respective industries that face closure under the recent government lockdown instructions. Had the Equality Act protected such employees on the basis of socio-economic status as a protected characteristic, some of those fears and the subsequent affects for mental health may have been mitigated. Furthermore, calls for Universal Credit to now be available to those in difficult financial circumstances due to the virus, also testify to the importance of financial precarity and vulnerability to also be inclusive within the Act.

I therefore call for the UK Government to make COVID-19 a “protected characteristic” under the Equality ACT 2010 legislation. Doing this would allow legal protection not only under the ‘temporary’ Coronavirus Bill which is subject to change every six months, but also under the Equality Act 2010. To name a few benefits, such an approach would provide workers being laid off by companies the legal protection to challenge their employers in employment tribunals, as to lay them off due to Covid-19 would amount to discrimination. It would allow the homeless to receive stable housing and if local authorities refuse, it would be unlawful under discrimination law, and it would allow for those struggling to pay rent and bills to be legally protected, as failure to receive Universal Credit would amount to discrimination.

While community led action has, heartwarmingly, cropped up all over the country in response to the government’s teenage like rebellion stance against the virus, to alleviate the pressures on the NHS, care industry, and food banks, it is such radical compassion that must translate into the already existing legal frameworks. We have, unfortunately, seen this time and again; the government fails and communities are left to pick up the pieces. We only need to peer over the nation’s shoulders to Grenfell, Windrush, and floods to see the pattern. If we have learnt anything in the ten years of Tory austerity, it should be to ensure that the radical compassion approach is reflected in the Equality Act to allow for the long-term and robust protection of the people.

To learn more about the Equality Act Review Campaign, visit Twitter: @EqualityActRev

Author’s twitter: @DrSuriyah

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