Environmental exposure

Environmental factors such as housing and deprivation play a huge role in determining health outcomes. Poor quality and overcrowded housing are significant risk factors for Covid-19.

Between 2014 and 2017, 23 million households in England were overcrowded. While on average only two per cent of white British households experience overcrowding, the percentage is considerably higher for Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. [1] Not only are Black, Asian and minority ethnic people more likely to live in overcrowded housing, their quality of housing is disproportionately poor as they are more likely to live in polluted areas and without outside space.

We heard that poor housing hampers an individual’s ability to self-isolate within a household after being exposed to Covid-19, a particular risk for multigenerational households. Those living in overcrowded housing are also more likely to have existing health issues such as heart and respiratory problems, which exacerbate illness from Covid-19, and studies have suggested that long-term exposure to air pollution before the pandemic is associated with severe symptoms from Covid-19 and a greater risk of death. [2] Moreover, Aston University highlighted the strong association between area deprivation, ethnicity, ambient air quality and Covid-19 related deaths. [3]

We heard overcrowding and poor-quality housing has not been sufficiently considered when providing guidance for minimising transmission, nor has adequate support and resources been given to local authorities to tackle this problem. Friends, Families and Travellers told us shielding and self-isolation was a particular problem for some Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in cases where there is lack of access to water and sanitation.

A decade of poor housing policy and longstanding inequalities has left people overexposed to Covid-19. Since 2010, the number of new social rented homes has fallen by over 80 per cent, new homes for affordable home-ownership has fallen by 89 per cent and there are more than 800,000 fewer home owning households aged under 45. [4] With only 20 per cent of Black African households owning their own home, compared to 68 per cent of white households, this failure is particularly acute.

The Government’s decade-long failure to build social rented housing has pushed many families into the less regulated and less secure private rented market. Research by Shelter has found that four in 10 landlords admitted that “prejudices and stereotypes” come into letting decisions. [5] This is exacerbated by the Government’s right to rent policy, which has been found to lead to discrimination in the housing market. [6]

Beyond outright discrimination, Black, Asian and minority ethnic households are disproportionately affected by the affordability crisis in housing. Before Covid, ethnic minority communities were more likely to say they were “struggling financially” and to live in a household which was behind on bills or housing payments. [7] Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to have fallen behind as a result of the Covid crisis, with a shocking one in three Black people behind on their bills as a result of the crisis compared to one in eight white people. [8]

Local government respondents told us that housing benefit caps and the bedroom tax have had a disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and minority ethnic families. The Covid crisis has caused a huge 93 per cent rise in households hit by the benefits cap from February to May this year. [9]

Black, Asian and minority ethnic households are also disproportionally represented at the most acute end of the housing crisis – homelessness. People who are homeless, including rough sleepers, are acutely at risk of Covid, but Black, Asian and minority ethnic households are over-represented in homelessness figures, in particular Black households who account for one in 10 homeless households, compared to one in 30 of the general population. [10] Rough sleeping has already risen sharply during the pandemic. This combined with the onset of winter and a second Covid spike, the effects of the Tories’ job crisis and the end to the evictions ban, threatens to drive a homelessness crisis that will disproportionately affect Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.


Recommendation 7: Give targeted support to people who are struggling to self-isolate at home

The Government should urgently work with local authorities to co-produce a package of resources to enable them to identify and support people who may not be able to self-isolate. This should include those with no recourse to public funds.

The Government should also review its current financial support package for those who need to isolate to ensure it supports all those who need help. No one should be forced to choose between isolating or putting food on the table.

If the Government or local authorities plan to provide a system of parcels of food and essential amenities during the second spike of Covid-19 then it must build into the contracts measures to ensure these are culturally appropriate and meet the dietary needs of all of our communities.

Recommendation 8: Ensure protection and an end to discrimination for renters

The Government should urgently bring forward emergency legislation to protect renters in this crisis, and ensure that its Renters Reform Bill includes measures to tackle racial discrimination in the private rental market.

Recommendation 9: Raise the local housing allowance and address the root causes of homelessness

The Government should raise the local housing allowance to the level of local average rents, to ensure low-income households are not forced into debt eviction and homelessness during the crisis. The Government’s homelessness and rough sleeping strategy must address the causes of homelessness among Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and put forward a strategy to address the root causes of housing inequality, including the supply of good quality, secure affordable housing.

  4. MHCLG, Additional affordable homes provided by tenure, England, September 2020,; English Housing Survey 2018 to 2019: headline report, MHCLG, January 2020,; MHCLG, Additional affordable homes provided by tenure, England, September 2020,, Table 1000: additional affordable homes provided by type of scheme, England.

Promoted by David Evans on behalf of the Labour Party, both at Southside, 105 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QT.