Coronavirus

Easing lockdown restrictions without consideration for childcare will undermine any form of economic recovery

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While the focus of the news this past week has been very much placed on Dominic Cummings, and his lack of penalisation by the Prime Minister, there’s been another issue that’s starting to reveal itself.

In the Liaison Committee, Caroline Nokes, the women and equalities committee chair, asked Boris Johnson whose advice the government had taken on reopening schools at the same time as the retail sector – where 60% of employees are female – and how the move might impact the availability of childcare. 

The PM avoided the focus of the question, and replied: “I think your question, Caroline, is directed at whether or not we’ve got sufficient female representation at the top of government helping us to inform these decisions and I really think we have.” 

He then continued to list members of the government who were women – regardless of their expertise on the childcare issue Caroline Nokes had asked about – demonstrating a clear lack of thought on the topic.

In Rishi Sunak’s Coronavirus briefing on May 29th, a member of the public asked what support women who are expected to return to work from maternity leave and unable to arrange childcare would get. 

Rishi Sunak’s laughably naive answer was that women who cannot arrange childcare will be supported in their return to work from maternity leave by the furlough scheme (which they are ineligible for) and with the reopening of schools (the assumption being that a woman gives birth to a fully school-ready 5-year-old).

Both highlight a vital point. The impact of coronavirus and easing lockdown restrictions on childcare has had very little consideration, and as such, very little preparation. This is not only disturbing in terms of demonstrating the importance of the needs of women to the government but has huge economic ramifications too.

Women make up the majority of those working in the retail (60%), healthcare (79%), and education (70%) industries according to the House of Commons March Briefing Paper ‘Women and the Economy’. 

These are also the industries the government has focused on reopening first. But, many women’s return to these jobs is hindered by the continuing absence of proper structures to replace the unpaid childcare work women do. 

Unpaid work (of which women do over 75%) has been consistently undervalued historically. According to the OECD, unpaid care work in high income could account for up to 50% of GDP. 

McKinsey estimates women’s unpaid care work contributes $10 trillion to global GDP. We don’t have figures available in the UK, but an Australian study gives an impression of the scope. This study found that unpaid childcare is the country’s largest industry – generating almost three times the financial industry. 

This care burden, specifically childcare, has significantly increased with the closing of schools. But with more people furloughed or working from home, this has been somewhat manageable. 

It’s become an unspoken normality that schools are a support network for childcare, a point that was made clear by Rishi Sunak’s response. But, with the partial reopening of England, this won’t be available in the same way.

Those who work in retail and education with children who aren’t in the specified Year One and Year Six age groups will have to choose between returning to their paid job or continuing their unpaid childcare work at risk of losing their job. 

This issue is particularly acute for single parents, and in families where both partners work. Even if you work from home, managing homeschooling, pastoral care, and doing your full-time job is a feat.

In a family setting, it will be the highest-paid earner (which in two-thirds of cases is the father) that returns to work, and the lower-paid that focuses on the childcare/unpaid work responsibilities. For single parents, this decision means you risk being unable to support yourself financially, potentially losing your job to ensure the safety of your child. 

What does this mean for the economy? Without effective childcare alternatives, workers with families won’t be able to completely return to work. Many will lose their jobs, and the financial security that accompanies them. Or parents will risk putting their child’s health and development in jeopardy, by attempting to juggle an unpaid, necessary burden, with an equally necessary financial one. 

In either scenario, the needs of neither of these essential elements of the UK’s economy are being effectively met. And indeed, the increase in unemployment and the hit to worker morale and capacity will also limit the economy’s reopening. 

Effective childcare structures (informal or formal) make the functioning of the economy possible. If you reopen these industries without proper consideration of the informal childcare structures that make them possible, you end up sacrificing the effectiveness and economic benefit of both. 

If the government wants real economic recovery, and a safe easing of lockdown measures, they need to step up, realise the gap, and invest into formal, sustainable structures that unpaid work is currently filling.

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