Opinion: A year of living dangerously

It is 366 days since the Government first ordered us to stay at home, an instruction that, to everyone’s surprise, is still in place today. After a year of lockdowns and misery, the big question is, where do we go from here? A new report from the British Academy titled ‘The COVID Decade’ offers some answers. Richard Dawson explores

Yesterday (March 23) was an anniversary of sorts.

The day marked one year since the introduction of the first national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Back then, fewer than 1000 people had died after contracting COVID-19. Today, the figure is more than 126,000.

A staggering 455,000 patients have been admitted to hospital with the illness and around 4.3 million cases have been recorded. The true figure is probably double that number.

A succession of tough public health restrictions has cost the UK economy approximately £251 billion, according to the latest analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR).

The cost to the Government is much higher – with a peacetime record budget deficit of £355 billion forecast for this financial year.

There are also 700,000 fewer people in employment in the UK than were in February 2020.

11 million jobs have been supported by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), with 5 million still on furlough at the time of writing.

Nobody could have predicted any of this when reports first came in about a new strain of pneumonia linked to a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan.

Hosting the now ubiquitous Downing Street press conference yesterday, exactly one year since the first stay at home order, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked whether he thought we would be living with the consequences of COVID-19 for the long-term.

He said: “I think this is something that we will all remember and be dealing with, in different ways, at least for as long as I live.

“It’s been an extraordinary moment in our history and a deeply difficult and distressing period.”

The British Academy has been tasked with trying to flesh out what some of the long-term societal impacts might be.

In a new report, titled ‘The COVID Decade’, the national academy provides a comprehensive overview of how coronavirus will cast a long shadow into the future.

“In sum, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and differences and created new ones, as well as exposing critical societal needs and strengths,” it says.

The findings of the report are structured into three main areas – health and wellbeing, communities, culture and belonging and knowledge, employment and skills.

On health and wellbeing, the report highlights that COVID-19 is not a socially neutral disease in the sense that mortality figures have followed existing patterns of structural health inequalities.

Pre-pandemic, the most deprived towns in England already had worse health outcomes on life expectancy, illness and wellbeing. During the pandemic, the same areas have seen higher infection and mortality rates too.

Moreover, while the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 is greater for men and older people, the greater long-term socio-economic impacts and health impacts may disproportionately affect women and young people.

Young people are also at high risk of developing poor mental health from the loss of peer interaction, disruption to daily routine, reduced physical activity, uncertainty about the future and increased exposure to familial stressors in the household.

Another challenge for public health moving forward is the ease with which misinformation can spread during a crisis, reaffirming the need for trustworthy and reliable sources of information.

On communities, culture and belonging, the report notes how critical local volunteer and community groups have been in the UK’s response to COVID-19 but warns that maintaining these local resources will be challenging given the ‘perfect storm’ the pandemic has created for local government finances and community infrastructure funds.

Coronavirus has also reversed the trend towards individualism with people recognising more and more the benefits of social cohesion and community solidarity.

Culturally, the report says there has been a reduction in trust in government and mainstream media from already very low levels previously.

There are also major concerns about the impact of successive lockdowns on the creative industries, which the British Academy says could collapse, contract or change significantly as a result of the pandemic.

On knowledge, employment and skills, the long-term societal impact of COVID-19 is perhaps most profound as pre-existing inequalities on access to education, employment prospects and individual and household incomes have been dramatically exacerbated.

The disruption from lockdowns, social distancing and self-isolation to all aspects of education, from early years to higher education, may be felt for many years to come.

Past examples of missed education demonstrate significant adverse effects on educational outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children and families.

This will inevitably manifest in problems for the UK labour market, which is already struggling from the fact that the economy is contracting.

A generation of students will enter the labour market in a recession and will experience worse employment opportunities and income levels, all of which will affect intergenerational mobility.

Professor Sir David Cannadine, president of the British Academy, said: “Historians rightly debate the varied societal impacts of past pandemics – from the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death to the Spanish Flu – but no one doubts they were significant and profound.

“Potent narratives have always emerged to shape our understanding of the national past, especially at a time of crisis.

“No doubt the COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be fertile ground for new foundation myths.

“In the United Kingdom as around the globe, this pandemic is not just a health crisis that may one day end, but a social, economic and cultural crisis that will last much longer.”