Majority think Covid has increased UK social inequality, survey shows

By Patrick Butler Social policy editor

Over half of the public believes the coronavirus outbreak has driven greater social inequality in the UK over the past few months, according to a study by the government’s independent advisers.

The Social Mobility Commission said its annual survey of public attitudes revealed 56% of adults believed social inequality had increased during the pandemic. A quarter said Covid had made no difference to inequality and 16% were unsure.

The commission said the survey echoed growing evidence that the most socially disadvantaged had been hardest hit by the pandemic against a range of measures, from jobs and living standards, to health and access to online schooling.

The findings came after years of declining social mobility and a near-decade of rising child poverty, the report said. “Now without urgent, targeted action, social mobility looks set to go backwards and the attainment gap between the wealthy and disadvantaged will grow ever wider.”

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Steven Cooper, interim co-chair of the commission, said: “This poll dramatically underlines public concern about growing social inequality. Government, employers and educators should listen and act. The most disadvantaged – at home, school or work – should now be put centre stage in any recovery plan.”

The online poll, carried out for the Social Mobility Commission by YouGov, surveyed a UK-wide representative sample of 4,693 adults between 27 January and 1 February.

At a national level, the survey showed a majority of the people felt their geographical area had been no more badly impacted by coronavirus than anywhere else in the UK. But this overlaid significant regional differences in perceived Covid impact, including evidence of an English north-south divide.

Over a third (35%) of respondents in the north of England felt their region had suffered disproportionately harshly in terms of the impact of Covid on jobs. This compared with the south and south-west of England (outside London), where just 17% felt their employment prospects had been hit worse than others.

Similarly, 21% of northern Englanders felt their region had been worst affected by the impact of Covid on education, compared with just 8% in the south of England. Exactly a third of people in the north of England felt their living standards had taken the biggest battering, compared with just 10% of those in the south.

Just 12% of south of England respondents felt their region had borne the heaviest brunt on health of the pandemic. This compared, at the other end of the scale, with 32% in London, 31% in the north, and 31% in Northern Ireland. Scottish respondents were among those least likely to say they had been worst affected across all indicators.

Nearly half (44%) of the sample said they felt better off financially than a decade ago, although this was far more prevalent among the most affluent social classes (50%) than the least well-off (26%). Over a third of the poorest respondents (37%) felt worse off, a significantly higher proportion than any other social class.

The proportions of people saying they felt better or worse off financially than they did 10 years previously had remained largely static over the past four years – until this year, when there were significant increases in both groups.

The commission said it was not possible to say from the survey whether this dramatic recent change in people’s perceptions of their financial health was related to the coronavirus outbreak, though it said it could be connected to the varying fortunes of those who were able to stay in work and save money, and those who lost their jobs.

Asked to rate the two most negative impacts of coronavirus on people in their region, 55% singled out people’s mental health, 44% pinpointed lack of social contact, 26% said job opportunities, 22% chose access to education, and 18% people’s physical health.

A government spokesperson said: “This government is committed to levelling up outcomes for every individual, across the country. Supporting people’s mental wellbeing is a priority, which is why we are providing an additional £500m for mental health services and £79m to expand mental health support teams in schools and colleges.

“On top of that, our multi-billion pound plan for jobs aims to protect, support and create jobs across the country and offers targeted support to help jobseekers of all ages back into work.

“We are also providing £1.7bn to help children and young people with education recovery after time out of the classroom.”