Shaping the COVID Decade: addressing the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19

2021
The British Academy
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Summary

In September 2020, the British Academy was asked by the Government Office for Science to produce an independent review to address the question: What are the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19? This short but substantial question led us to a rapid integration of evidence and an extensive consultation process. As history has shown us, the effects of a pandemic are as much social, cultural and economic as they are about medicine and health. Our aim has been to deliver an integrated view across these areas to start understanding the long-term impacts and how we address them.

Our evidence review – in our companion report, The COVID decade – concluded that there are nine interconnected areas of long-term societal impact arising from the pandemic which could play out over the coming COVID decade, ranging from the rising importance of local communities, to exacerbated inequalities and a renewed awareness of education and skills in an uncertain economic climate.

From those areas of impact we identified a range of policy issues for consideration by actors across society, about how to respond to these social, economic and cultural challenges beyond the immediate short-term crisis. The challenges are interconnected and require a systemic approach – one that also takes account of dimensions such as place (physical and social context, locality), scale (individual, community, regional, national) and time (past, present, future; short, medium and longer term).

History indicates that times of upheaval – such as the pandemic – can be opportunities to reshape society, but that this requires vision and for key decisionmakers to work together. We find that in many places there is a need to start afresh, with a more systemic view, and where we should freely consider whether we might organise life differently in the future.

In order to consider how to look to the future and shape the COVID decade, we suggest seven strategic goals for policymakers to pursue: build multi-level governance; improve knowledge, data and information linkage and sharing; prioritise digital infrastructure; reimagine urban spaces; create an agile education and training system; strengthen community-led social infrastructure; and promote a shared social purpose. These strategic goals are based on our evidence review and our analysis of the nine areas of long-term societal impact identified. We provide a range of illustrative policy opportunities for consideration in each of these areas in the report that follows.

Seven policy goals to shape a COVID decade

1. Build multi-level governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to local needs.

Whether focusing on the recovery or improving our responsiveness and resilience to future crises, policies and decisions must be made and implemented at different levels of governance – and for them to work most effectively, these levels must operate in strong partnership, with both vertical and lateral collaboration.

The tensions between localised and centralised governance are longstanding. But the current crisis has highlighted both a clear justification and a unique and powerful opportunity for a thorough, transparent and bipartisan assessment and reform of the role and powers of central and local government – and, crucially, how they interact across a range of policy issues and areas of service provision.

2. Improve the way we develop, share and communicate knowledge, data and information to enable all decision-makers to work from shared understanding of the facts.

The quality and consistency of the flows of information within government, between different departments and agencies and between government and non-state actors – including the wider public – should be improved in order to mitigate more effectively the social impacts of this crisis and be better prepared for future crises. Decisionmakers need to make data sharing with other agencies the default position, including at international levels when appropriate, as a coordinated and shared view of the facts is in the public interest.

Efforts should be taken to make communication a two-way process, informing while also engaging people and organisations to participate by feeding back information, with greater transparency of sources to improve trust. Communication needs to reflect and learn from people’s lived experience.

3. Prioritise investment in digital infrastructure as a critical public service to eliminate the digital divide, improve communication and joint problem solving, and create a more equitable basis for education and employment.

Successful recovery demands that the country prioritises and accelerates its investment in digital infrastructure. The lockdown has created an opportunity to embrace digital technology in enhancing the way we do things, but it has also highlighted the disparities in digital access and heightened the need to ensure no groups are left behind by the rapid changes in the way people live, work and learn.

The existing geographical and socioeconomic inequalities in digital access across the country should be tackled as they remain a primary barrier to levelling up. The issue is so fundamental that government and other actors could treat investment in digital infrastructure as a critical, life-changing public service, taken forward with the same zeal that we saw in 19th-century Britain with the railway boom or, in the 20th century, the construction of the national grid.

4. Reimagine urban spaces to support sustainable and adaptable local businesses, amenities and lifestyles.

The effects of the pandemic provide a crucial thrust to rethink the relationship between urban, rural and other environments with a more efficient and sustainable future in mind. Central and local governments must come to a consensus around a comprehensive but place-sensitive land use plan that creates a viable blueprint for the development of flexible, sustainable neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

The regeneration of towns and cities will need a range of skills, offering new educational and employment opportunities, helping to transition the economy to sustainable growth. It will also protect society and the environment against unsustainable urban-to-rural migration and suburban sprawl, which would have environmental, cultural and social consequences and could make the country’s commitments to achieving net zero all the more difficult.

5. Create a more agile, responsive education and training system capable of meeting the needs of a new social and economic environment and acting as a catalyst to develop and enhance our future.

COVID-19 will have lasting implications for our economy, labour market and communities, which will not be distributed equally but could exacerbate existing employment trends across sectors and geographic communities and disproportionately impact the vulnerable. These changes will require a rethinking of the types of knowledge and skills needed in a new social and economic environment, with an emphasis on using education and training as a catalyst to develop and enhance our future while making us better prepared for the challenges we could face.

Current cohorts in education have also suffered a loss of learning opportunities unprecedented in modern times, which has also increased existing educational inequalities. And while educational strategy is driven by a systems-level approach, policymakers in central government should take account of the different contexts of schooling locally and allow enough flexibility for local actors to review and respond in the most appropriate way, on the basis of local knowledge and experience, in partnership with central government and national agencies. Now that the education system has been rapidly equipped to deliver many forms of education remotely, there is an opportunity to be seized to distribute the opportunity to learn more widely and for longer, in future, both in terms of both the range of provision and its demographic reach.

6. Strengthen and expand community-led social infrastructure that underpins the vital services and support structures needed to enhance local resilience, particularly in the most deprived areas.

Community-led social infrastructure has been an essential but precarious lifeline in the crisis, and its importance will only grow as we look to respond to and mitigate the long-term societal effects. These infrastructures must be further supported and enhanced if we are to rely on them in the future.

We must also look closely at the critical role of communities in rebuilding trust and cohesion after the crisis, ensuring the right infrastructure is in place to strengthen trust both within and between different groups and communities, which in turn builds social capital and underpins wider recovery demands for greater economic productivity and resilience. Important civic institutions like universities, colleges, places of worship, museums and sports clubs all need to act as supportive nodes in the underlying structures which support and empower communities.

7. Empower a range of actors, including business and civil society, to work together with a sense of social purpose to help drive a solid strategy for recovery across the economy and society.

The significant achievements in social, scientific, technological and cultural innovation during the crisis were not driven by market competition or state direction alone: different actors worked together towards a common goal because of a shared sense of urgency and necessity. If we are truly to work towards a positive future, we must strive to enhance this collective sense of social purpose and not revert to atomised, adversarial interests.

The pandemic brought out some of the best features of a compassionate, cooperative and innovative society, driven by the shared purpose of responding to the crisis. However, we need to turn these pockets of purpose-driven cooperation during a crisis into a solid strategy for recovery across the economy and society. Government, business, the media and civil society can come together to actively support and encourage individuals to contribute their energies, break down divides and create a sense of national unity and duty akin to that seen in the war effort.

Building a more resilient framework for policy in 2030

The pandemic has also revealed limitations in our policy framework and there is much to learn about how to improve policymaking to ensure government can manage future crises – be that another pandemic or something entirely different. In addition to the seven strategic policy goals, we conclude that a more resilient and effective state should follow five principles which we label CLEAR: Communicative, Learning, Engaging, Adaptive and Relational. These principles can work collectively to support the delivery of the strategic policy goals and be used as a framework for a successful recovery by 2030.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has generated a series of social, economic and cultural effects that will have long-term impacts: we are in a COVID decade and, indeed, many of these effects will be felt far beyond that. In particular, the pandemic has exposed, exacerbated and solidified existing inequalities in society. However, it is not just a case of the pandemic making existing problems worse. It has also exposed areas of strength, resilience, creativity and innovation.

We argue that policymakers need to act systemically across areas to respond to the emerging trends and that there are a wide range of policy opportunities open to them. Following our substantial evidence review and extensive and repeated consultations with a wide array of leading experts across SHAPE disciplines, as well as government and civil society, we also put forward CLEAR principles which provide a framework for governments to create effective policy, especially in a crisis.

During the immediate COVID-19 crisis government necessarily had to rely increasingly on input from external experts and made rapid adaptations to enable the collection and sharing of data and evidence. It is important that this continues even as we move away from the immediate crisis to dealing with longer-term issues. It will continue to be vital to bring in different kinds of expertise, especially that found within the humanities and social sciences, as we turn from the medical crisis to dealing with the social, economic and cultural impacts emerging from the pandemic.

In this review, the British Academy has undertaken the substantial task of beginning to answer the longer-term question about what the societal impacts of COVID-19 will be and how we address them. What follows can be boiled down to an interrelated set of 9 areas of long-term impact, 7 strategic policy goals and 5 key principles of a facilitative policy environment for 2030. Behind those numbers lies a wealth of detailed evidence, thoroughly tested reasoning and substantial intellectual and professional consensus. The situation continues to evolve, and new evidence will help us build a richer picture of the pandemic’s effects. We aim here to provide decision-makers with a sense of how to start to respond to these longer-term impacts on the basis of the current evidence, and how to shape the COVID decade. We will look forward to opportunities to develop this programme in partnership with policymakers, civil society, business and actors at all levels of society.

Read more

The COVID Decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19

Evidence report

The British Academy was asked by the Government Office for Science to produce an independent review on the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19. This report outlines the evidence across a range of areas, building upon a series of expert reviews, engagement, synthesis and analysis across the SHAPE research community. It shows that COVID-19 has generated a series of social, economic and cultural effects which will have long-term impacts.

Evidence submissions

See all of the rapid response submissions to the British Academy’s call for evidence on the long-term societal effects and impacts of COVID-19.

‘Shaping the COVID Decade’, explained in two minutes

Blog

The key points from our reports on understanding and addressing the COVID decade, summarised by Professor Dominic Abrams FBA in just two minutes.

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