UK coronavirus response was perhaps too little too late: Cherie Blair

UK coronavirus response was perhaps too little too late: Cherie Blair

Cherie Blair, founder of The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, has told CNBC that Britain may have responded “too little, too late” to the coronavirus crisis, but the focus should now be on the global economy and making sure women’s voices are heard. 

“I don’t think anyone would be surprised if I said it does appear that perhaps Britain has not done as well as we might have done, and perhaps we responded too little, too late, but that’s not for me to judge,” she said.

“No doubt there will be in the future time to do that. At the moment our main concern obviously is to try and get through this.”

The U.K. government has defended its response to the virus, although it has conceded there have been logistical difficulties with the distribution of personal protective equipment.

Blair added that the focus now should be on how are we going to ensure that our economy picks up as quickly as possible.

“Not just in our country, but particularly with the foundation again, across the world, and how do we make sure that women’s voices don’t get lost in that,” she said.

The respected barrister established her foundation in 2008 to “release the potential” of women entrepreneurs. It runs programs across the developing world, offering access to training, technology, networking, finance and mentoring. So far it has supported more than 160,000 women in over 100 lower-and middle-income countries.

New research by the foundation shows that one of the biggest challenges for female entrepreneurs at the moment is juggling their jobs plus the additional work they have taken on during lockdown “as a wife, a mother, maybe a daughter looking after elderly parents.”

“We know that women always have these challenges, but many of us have made arrangements on the basis that there will be schools for our children to go to, or other carers who may help out with the care of our elderly relations, and suddenly, of course, all that is not available,” she said.

Another big issue facing some of the women supported by the foundation around the world is prejudice in societies that are not comfortable with women working outside the home at all.

Blair, who is also co-founder and chair of law firm Omnia Strategy, said she believes some working women who have had to stay at home during the global lockdown response to Covid-19 could face the real danger of opposition to them returning to the workforce after the crisis.

Gender inequality in the spotlight

The coronavirus pandemic has increasingly highlighted the significant gap in gender equality around the world.

A recent policy brief by the United Nations on the impact of the virus on women said that “nearly 60 per cent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged governments “to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID-19.”

Women are less likely to have access to financial services, according to the UN, and are more likely to be burdened with the majority of unpaid work such as homeschooling and care giving. They are also more likely to be employed in businesses hardest hit by the virus including tourism, hospitality and retail.

Before the crisis, research co-published by The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and the Boston Consulting Group in 2019 found that “if women had equal access to entrepreneurship, global GDP (gross domestic product) could rise by $5 trillion.”

As such, Blair, who was awarded a CBE in 2013 by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to women’s issues and charity, says technology has been at the heart of her foundation. 

“Technology can really help make that difference because it allows us to give the women the thing that they often lack in relation to their businesses. Access to finance, access to information, access to markets and access to a network support that our mentoring platform gives them,” she said.

Blair’s take on U.K. politics

Blair, whose husband Tony Blair was prime minister from 1997-2007, also commented on the ongoing political scandal in the country, involving current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings, who is facing pressure to resign after allegedly breaking government lockdown rules.

“I think ‘thank God this is not on my plate at the moment’,” she said, adding that she was concentrating on her legal business and foundation during the crisis.

She also looked ahead to the future of the Labour Party, which her husband once led, saying she was “delighted” with the appointment of Keir Starmer as party leader. 

When asked about the perception of Labour by some as “the nasty party” under former leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, she said it was “disappointing.”

She added that the way the Labour Party had lost the 2019 general election had been “particularly disappointing,” but she now sees “an absolute concerted effort to put the past behind us and to engage with the people, all people of the U.K., where they are, and to look and see that we represent their views properly.”

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