As Britain’s Covid-19 death toll becomes the highest in Europe, we should be clear that we are not all suffering equally. Analysis of ONS data in England and Wales of mortality since the Covid-19 crisis began has found twice the rate of deaths in poor areas as rich ones.
“It is not a leveller,” Magi Morris, health consultant and former head of public health in Central Lancashire, said. “More people who are at social economic disadvantage will not only get ill but get iller and will die in numbers greater than the privileged. This disease knows where to find the weakest links.”
We don’t have such an analysis for Scotland yet, but we can be pretty confident that in a country with stark health inequalities a similar pattern will be at work. You don’t need a Phd in Sociology to realise that those who live in a detached house with a garden and can work from home are much better set-up to keep Covid-19 at bay than if you are in a high density block of flats with communal spaces and need to leave home everyday.
The onus is on government to ameliorate these inequalities by ensuring that those in more difficult circumstances get the additional support they need. The worry is that the opposite is happening – the concerns of those better prepared to cope with Covid-19 are being prioritised over those most exposed.
Take housing. Scottish Government Housing Minister Kevin Stewart officially announced yesterday a £5 million “aid for private landlords” scheme. The interest-free loans to landlords with five properties or less are intended to cover rent arrears if tenants refuse to pay in the six months in which they cannot be evicted. But it’s not landlords that really need aid right now, it’s tenants. It’s their circumstances which are most vulnerable to Covid-19 exposure, and not only due to direct financial pressures.
Tenants’ union Living Rent has identified 16 Registered Social Landlords or council properties across Scotland that have seen cleaning services reduced or cut altogether during this crisis. Remarkably, some RSL’s have stated that this decision has been taken to reduce exposure to Covid-19, in accordance with Scottish Government advice to stop non-essential work. Tell that to tenants who are paying for cleaning services that have not been delivered for over six weeks, and are having to live with dangerously filthy closes, lifts and communal areas.
Source has seen a range of testimony from tenants about their situation. A disabled tenant in the West of Glasgow has taken to cleaning the close himself, as he was told at the start of the outbreak that the out-sourced cleaning services would stop for the duration of the crisis. One tenant in a Housing Association in the West End of the city had their automated front-door to the flat broken at the start of the outbreak, and it’s not been fixed, meaning anyone can enter. Another in the south of Glasgow said cleaning services had stopped since 10 March: “I am now out of pocket to purchase broom, mop, bucket and disinfectant to do my close”. On social media, a tenant in the Port of Leith Housing Association in Edinburgh said that cleaning services had stopped but officers were still coming round to complain about rent arrears.
Living Rent has launched a Hygiene Kills the Virus campaign to address the problem. It says that two social landlords, Cube Housing and Maryhill Housing Association, have responded positively to the campaign and re-instated cleaning services, but many haven’t. The union has now written to Kevin Stewart calling on him to introduce emergency legislation which makes regular cleaning of blocks of flats obligatory, ensures that all cleaning workers get the proper PPE they need to do the work, that hand sanitisers is provided in all communal areas, that a Covid-19 information campaign is run in these communities and that none of this is added on to the cost of rent for tenants.
It doesn’t seem like an awful lot to ask. University of St Andrews Professor Stephen Reicher, who sits on the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 advisory panel, has backed the campaign, saying: “We will only get through this pandemic together. And we can’t be together if some are living in comfort and others are (literally) living in dirt.”
The Housing Minister has been very attentive to the needs of private landlords in this crisis. Ensuring the delivery of cleaning services in social housing to ensure a basic level of communal hygiene for tenants in a pandemic is surely not beyond the Scottish Government.
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