Government policies exacerbating impact of COVID-19 amongst disadvantaged communities

As the UK enters the second wave of the pandemic, it is now even more urgent for government to support rather than penalise disadvantaged households
- Professor Laura Bear
CareAndCovid_Grey Hutton_National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund_747x560
Ziggy Noonan from the Children With Voices community food hub Grey Hutton/National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

Put communities at centre of pandemic policy to improve public compliance and better support disadvantaged areas, LSE researchers advise

The UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has directly increased the negative impact of the crisis amongst disadvantaged communities and damaged public trust in government. To reverse this, future policy must be built around the realities of how communities, social networks and households in diverse areas operate. This is the conclusion of a major new report from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). 

The result of six months research surveying a broad cross-section of communities across the UK, the report provides a comprehensive picture of how people have received and responded to government interventions. The findings reveal that policy decisions haven’t always matched with the realities of social life, often making it impossible for communities to be adherent and increasing public distrust of government. This has placed many households under huge mental and financial strain, both exacerbating existing forms of deprivation and creating new inequalities.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations which would help reduce the burden the pandemic has placed on disadvantaged communities. 

First, government must tackle the burden coronavirus has placed on households and care deficit that social distancing measures generate. With lockdowns cutting off both formal and informal networks of care, households have been left to absorb care needs alone. This has, the research shows, particularly impacted on low income houses, women, single parents, disabled people and essential workers. Policies restricting social networks of support should only be introduced as a last measure, the researchers argue, and when such restrictions are needed, they should follow social bubble households policies rather than arbitrary regulations such as the rule of six, which do not match household practices and which discriminate against particular social groups such as multigenerational households. 

In addition, emergency mental and care support measures must be put in place in regions under Tier 2 and 3 restrictions, the report states. These would include financing the expansion of mental health care and subsidising, or in the most deprived regions providing free of charge, COVID-safe child and elder care facilities. Alongside this households should be paid a care supplement similar to a child-allowance through the second wave to recompense them for the burdens unpaid care-workers are bearing. These measures are as important for our economy and society as sustaining businesses through the pandemic, the researchers state. 

Policymakers must also urgently address how to strengthen third sector, mutual aid and government social care at the local level so communities can be adherent and recover and invest in social infrastructures, including schools, youth services, elderly care and local charities, the researchers argue. This can be achieved through local recovery centres, where community champions, local authorities, public health bodies and other stakeholders work together to co-produce local appropriate solutions. 

Government must build an economic package that meets the diverse working conditions of the population the report findsThe Treasury’s response to the pandemic’s impact has to date been based on a one-size fits all UK-wide economic model, which eclipses the complexity of current labour arrangements at regional, local and household levels, including the prominence of casual work and in-work poverty. This includes tracking and providing targeted support for Informalised workers, including those on zero hour contracts, freelancers or people without formal employment contracts, as well as more investment in family businesses and SMEs, the researchers say, with regional regeneration managed in partnership with local authority economic officers. 

Professor Laura Bear, Head of the Department of Anthropology at LSE who lead the research, said: “Communities, social networks and households are at the core of a thriving, UK society and economy, but have been largely ignored by policymakers in their response to the pandemic. This ‘view from afar’ approach has meant that interventions do not fit with the realities of how disadvantaged communities make a living or live their lives. The result is policy that has increased the negative financial, physical and mental impacts of the crisis on households, many of which were already disadvantaged before this crisis. 

“As the UK enters the second wave of the pandemic, it is now even more urgent for government to take measures that support rather than penalise disadvantaged households. To do this it must act on the realities of how local communities operate and invest in, and engage far more collaboratively with, networks at both regional and local authority level. This would also be the most effective way to increase public trust and adherence to COVID-19 measures, because it would recognize the suffering that communities have experienced and build policy on the basis of what is most important to people - the thriving of their families and communities.”

The report also looks to the end of the pandemic and sets out ways the government can look to build economic and social recovery. 

The government must ensure that its recovery measures don’t lead to further ethnic, racial and class inequality, the researchers argue. To guard against this, government must apply a social calculus to measuring the health of economy and society the report advises. This should be applied to the measurement of recovery that includes attention to regional, community and household inequality and how it is deepened or reduced by government policies.

Finally, the report urges policymakers to generate more accurate data on how everyday people are living during the pandemic to inform policy on social behaviour and prevent stigma. In the absence of comprehensive population-level data on epidemiological transmission, assumptions and, sometimes, stereotypes have been relied on to calculate and explain risk from the virus, it claims. To ensure future policy doesn’t replicate the inequalities of today, data should be collected that will allow them to understand the impact of policy at community level, particularly in communities under local Tier 2 and 3 social restriction measures.  

Download the full report: A right to care: the social foundations of recovery from Covid-19


Picture: Ziggy Noonan from the Children With Voices community food hub puts together bags filled with food, drinks and supplies for families in Hackney, 13th April, 2020.  By Grey Hutton, supported by National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists. 

Behind the article

Laura Bear is a member of the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) which provides independent, expert behavioural science advice to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which in turn advises ministers and officials across government. 

For more information, contact: 

Professor Laura Bear, LSE Department of Anthropology,

LSE Media Relations,