Social costs of pandemic will be felt for a decade, report suggests

A car drives past a coronavirus information sign Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Society will continue to feel the impacts of coronavirus for a decade or more without an urgent public policy overhaul, a British Academy report warns.

The independent research report was launched on the anniversary of Britain’s first lockdown.

It forecasts significant intervention will be needed to avoid an acceleration towards poorer health, social and economic outcomes, and a more extreme pattern of inequality.

The multi-disciplinary evidence review, The Covid decade: Understanding the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19, highlights a number of interconnected trends.

These include low and unstable levels of trust in the national government that undermine the ability to mobilise public behaviour.

Following a brief initial increase, trust in the UK government and feelings of national unity are in decline, the experts say.

They add that trust in local government and feelings of local unity have been higher and steadier.

The researchers add that declining trust is a major challenge that needs to be addressed as it undermines the ability to mobilise public behaviour for wider social and health benefits.

Other trends are widening geographic inequalities on measures such as health and wellbeing, local economic risk and resilience, and poverty and worsening social development, relationships and mental health.

The review suggests the impact of these will vary according to age, gender, race and ethnicity, and levels of social deprivation.

According to the report, other patterns are severe strains on the capacity to support local community infrastructure, which has risen in importance during the pandemic, and lost – and likely unrecoverable – access to education at all levels, exacerbating existing socio-economic inequality.

This includes limiting access to digital skills and technology, and impeding progress towards a prosperous, high-skilled economy.

In the review, the experts warn that consequences of lost access to education at all levels, coupled with changes to assessments, will be felt for years to come, and wholly recovering lost education is unfeasible.

They say this has exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities in attainment and highlighted digital inequality.

The paper is accompanied by a wide-ranging policy analysis called Shaping the Covid Decade.

It argues these societal impacts have exposed several gaps in public policymaking that the Government now has the opportunity to address.

These include resolving tensions between the roles of local and central governance to improve local-level resilience and the response to local needs across the country.

It also involves strengthening and expanding the community-led social infrastructure that underpins services and support networks, particularly in deprived areas, the analysis suggests.

Other opportunities include eliminating the digital divide by treating digital infrastructure as a critical, life-changing public service, and empowering businesses and civic, educational and social institutions to act with a shared sense of social purpose.

The British Academy – the UK’s national academy for the humanities and the social sciences – convened and engaged with more than 200 academics, practitioners and policy specialists to put together the analyses.

Dominic Abrams, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent and lead author of the documents, said: “The evidence provides us with a vital insight into the immense social impact of Covid-19 and the substantial challenges we must address in the coming decade.

“There are multiple forms of inequality that create personal and societal obstacles to progress.

“Finding ways to create greater inclusiveness, tackle underlying mechanisms of inequality, and create the resourcefulness to share a better future will be our biggest challenge during this ‘Covid decade’.

“The Covid decade will also be profoundly shaped by policy decisions, and this offers us many opportunities. Government will need to establish a longer-term vision to tackle the impacts of Covid-19.

“This will involve working in partnership with places and people to address structural problems systematically, not just in a piecemeal way.”

Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, said: “A year from the start of the first lockdown, we all want this to be over.

“However, in truth, we are at the beginning of a Covid decade.

“Policymakers must look beyond the immediate health crisis to repair the profound social damage wrought by the pandemic.”

He added that this means looking across education, employment, welfare, urban planning, community support and digital policies, and investing in civil society and our social infrastructure.

Professor Richard Blundell, David Ricardo chair of political economy at University College London, said many of the measures do cost money.

But he added: “I don’t necessarily think this is extra money, it is just the reorganisation, perhaps a kind of more laser light, of particular policies here.

“It’s very easy in the rapid rollout, as we saw, to kind of make a mistake. We’re now in a position where we should be thinking about how to do it best.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Coronavirus is the biggest public health challenge the UK has faced in decades and as we recover from this pandemic this Government is committed to building back better and levelling up outcomes for every individual across the country.

“That’s why we’ve implemented robust support to those who need it most – raising the living wage, spending billions to safeguard jobs, investing £2.4 billion each year for disadvantaged pupils, and boosting welfare support and local authority funding.

“On top of that, we are providing an additional £500m for mental health services and £79 million to expand mental health support teams in schools and colleges.”