The UK “cannot duck” tackling inequalities of health, ethnicity, education and jobs post-Covid, a major review has warned.
The report’s chairman, Nobel laureate Sir Angus Deaton, says a lot of work to repair and rebuild the damage will be needed after the pandemic.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) Deaton Review of Inequalities warned the fabric of society was under threat.
Launched 18 months ago, the review says Covid-19 worsened existing problems.
The review says there is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle the disadvantages faced by many that this pandemic has so devastatingly exposed”.
“We now face a set of challenges which we cannot duck.”
Sir Angus said: “As the vaccines should, at some point this year, take us into a world largely free of the pandemic, it is imperative to think about policies that will be needed to repair the damage and that focus on those who have suffered the most.
“We need to build a country in which everyone feels that they belong.”
While the pandemic had highlighted the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups and deprived communities, it also showed that the UK’s best-paid and most highly educated have been “much better able to ride out the crisis”, the report said.
Children from poorer households found it harder to do schoolwork during lockdown and have been more likely to miss school since September, it noted.
And while the biggest risk factor for coronavirus is age, younger people have been hit harder by the economic consequences of the crisis.
The cost of the pandemic is “just colossal” IFS director Paul Johnson told the BBC’s Today programme.
“We’ve seen the biggest reduction in national income, essentially in history, over the last year, we’ve seen the biggest public deficit in history outside of the two world wars, so there’s no getting around the fact that the pandemic and the response to it has had a bigger effect on the economy than anything essentially in the whole of history.”
The report highlighted the effects of the pandemic on different groups, including on education, which is “probably more worrying” than the overall economic effect, Mr Johnson said.
“The first lockdown lockdown saw a dreadful impact on the education particularly of poorer children… they were getting less in the way of online lessons from their schools.
“There’s a huge private school/state school divide in this, but also a big divide within state schools between those children who had support at home, had the facilities at home – laptops and internet and so on – but who also had the support from school – so there’s a big impact on education but also a very unequal one,” he added.
The review is calling for extra support for children who have fallen behind and help for school and university leavers to find jobs.
It says the welfare safety net must be adapted so it supports non-traditional forms of employment, including insecure and self-employed workers, and minority ethnic groups must be given greater economic opportunities.
Progress in reducing poor mental and physical health could be “one of the clearest indications of success of economic and social policy”, it adds.
Mark Franks, director of welfare at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the review, said: “Individuals are subject to a wide range of potential vulnerabilities around dimensions including age, ethnicity, place of birth, education, income and the nature of their employment.
“Where these vulnerabilities intersect, they can amplify and reinforce one another and play a huge role in driving unequal outcomes.”
However, the government said it was already spending vast sums to support people and the economy through the pandemic.
A spokesman said: “We’re doing everything we can to ensure our coronavirus support reaches those who need it the most, which is why we’ve invested more than £280bn to protect the incomes, livelihoods and health of millions of people across the UK.”
This included an additional £9bn for the welfare system and £2bn for the Kickstart Scheme, tripling traineeships, incentives for firms hiring apprentices and doubling the number of work coaches “so that nobody is left without hope or opportunity”, the spokesman said.