Building Back Fairer: The New Programme for Government Must Confront Inequalities Exacerbated by Covid-19

How the NI Executive risks failing the people left farthest behind by the pandemic Paige Jennings  |  Sun Mar 21 2021
A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, what we are witnessing is that those being left furthest behind come from groups who were worse off to begin with.

Humanitarian workers have spent years documenting the ways that shocks -- natural disasters, famines, war, diseases like Ebola or Zika -- exacerbate inequalities in the places they've struck. They've learned that crises hit hardest amongst people who were already neglected or marginalised to start with, those with less room to manoeuvre and fewer resources to protect themselves.

As a case in point, think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and the way that -- in one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world -- the ones who died, both during the storm and in its aftermath, were predominately Black and poor.

Similarly, a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, what the UK is witnessing is that those being left furthest behind come from groups who were worse off to begin with. As Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said last month, "it’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged".

Her assessment holds true in a host of different areas. The UK's Covid mortality statistics show that deprived areas and BAME groups have suffered disproportionate losses to the disease. Economic indicators reveal that people in insecure work when the pandemic began are amongst those who have seen their incomes hardest hit, and are at greater risk of falling into rent arrears.  Surveys have found that people living in poorer households under the most acute financial pressure suffer some of the worst mental health impacts.

This is the juncture, a year in, at which the NI Executive is asking people to give their views on the direction of the government's work over the next five years, via its consultation on the draft Outcomes Framework for a new Programme for Government.

The Executive began work on the draft before the pandemic and had to shelve it to prioritise the crisis. The difficulty is that, barring a more recent foreword and introduction, much of the text reads as though the pandemic never happened. There are next to no mentions of Covid-19 or -- more significantly -- of the many inequalities that have been deepened by the pandemic.

The Outcomes themselves are aspirational. For each one, however, Key Priority Areas for future work have been identified, and some of these themselves list important sub-issues to be addressed.

PPR's consultation response identifies and cites a local evidence base for 15 areas -- to do with children and young people; living standards and income; and housing -- where the draft Outcomes Framework has glossed over or omitted altogether pre-existing gaps that have been made worse by Covid-19 and its impact.

Why does this matter?  What difference does it make that key outcomes from previous governments' PfGs – such as “we have more people working in better jobs” -- have been cut from this one? Will anyone actually mind that the Outcomes Framework specifically includes things like "team sports" in the outcome on children, for instance, but fails to mention child homelessness, food poverty or digital exclusion?

It matters because -- as the lessons from humanitarian disaster response will show you -- people who were disadvantaged before a crisis may survive it, but if they do the likelihood is that they will have fallen even further behind than before.

In these times, with what we know about what government can achieve with political will, and what we have seen of how it can support groups and communities mobilised to meet need, these omissions are simply not acceptable.

The Executive's Introduction to the Outcomes Framework says

It is crucially important to get the wording of the Outcomes right as they will provide the starting point for future long-term strategic policy planning by the Executive and act as a touchstone for its strategies and actions moving forward.

Agreed – the wording matters. A government that fails to name the most harmful, egregious impacts to emerge from this unprecedented, world-changing year; one that foregoes an opportunity to ensure that there will be targeted measures to redress them -- that is a government that risks failing the people who need it most.

PPR’s full response to the Programme for Government consultation can be accessed here.

Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.