We hear a lot about the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and, predictably, we can see the huge impact it has had on employment – particularly those directly affected by the closure of retail, service and also the hospitality sectors. As each of these opened up during the summer of 2020, there was hope that we had put the worst of the virus behind us and we could move on.
However, as we approach the end of the year, we know that this was false hope. Positive cases are increasing, hospital admissions are up and there are new ‘lockdowns’ in different areas of the UK, possibly moving to another national one as we already have done here in Wales.
It’s going to be a hard winter. The impact on the economy will be severe.
But, as a researcher working in the field of Public Management, it is the unexpected consequences of COVID-19 – beyond these economic hits right across the UK – which have interested me.
Firstly, the pandemic has embedded UK devolution in ways that 20 years of devolution has not.
As COVID-19 hit the UK in March 2020, those in the media routinely presented news reports about COVID policy as though it applied right across the country. From the early months, these errors were corrected and now we regularly hear about different policies in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
This huge shift from the past has become the norm. The First Ministers present their own policies and guidance and, as a public, we’ve become familiar with this format across the four UK countries.
“Post the pandemic, there’s now a much stronger four countries policy agenda with potential for huge divergence in policy making.”
A more recent aspect of the devolution issue is the prominence of Mayors in a number of English cities. Whilst, historically speaking, Mayors have only been in place a relatively short time, we have, for the first time, witnessed real tension in at least one English city, between its elected members (including the Mayor) and the UK Prime Minister.
However, tensions between local and the national governments get resolved, the ‘cat is out of the bag’ in terms of the potential for elected members, led by the Mayor in an area, to conflict with the policy of the UK (English) government. This scenario reminds me of the conflicts in the 1980s between the then Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher and the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. We know what the end result was there – re-organisation!
A second unexpected consequence of COVID-19 is loneliness. It’s possible that many of us have, in the past, associated loneliness with older people living alone or in small households. What has come to light with COVID is a loneliness associated with people of all ages.
Taking a single person of working age, COVID meant that they were forced to work from home and, for some of the lockdown at least, the permission to meet those in other households was taken away. This meant no meeting people in pubs or restaurants, no cooking at home with friends and no going to a place of work. No more chats or ‘catch-ups’ in the lunch breaks or relaxing with friends after work or visits to the gym or cinema. Every aspect of a social life outside the home was taken away and, for many people, in particular single people, this has resulted in a great deal of loneliness.
Loneliness is an issue which we’ve discussed with public sector professionals as part of our MSc in Public Leadership. Clearly, it’s not easily resolved and in order to tackle it, it needs a range of responses. With a cohort drawn from central and local government, Natural Resources Wales, Office for National Statistics and the NHS and others, it was fascinating to hear about the different approaches and innovations which professionals are familiar with and putting in place.
A health challenge and so much more
“COVID-19 started as a health challenge but, what is clear now, is that it has had an impact on every aspect of our lives.”
It’s revealed significant issues around inequality for groups including those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities – as highlighted in a Welsh Government report by my colleague Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna. Moreover, the pandemic has exposed inequalities in educational opportunities, gender and housing, plus others too.
Many governments have sought to reduce these and certainly made public policy announcements in the hope of overcoming these challenges over the years. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the evidence we have about the impact of COVID-19 so far, little progress has been made. A range of these socioeconomic inequalities continue to exist, and the virus has brought them to national attention including that of the media, government and to those in the academic community too.
We must act this time around to undermine them.
As we move from Autumn to Winter 2020 in various states of ‘lockdown’, there’ll no doubt be many more unexpected consequences of COVID-19. As well as dealing with the pandemic and its most apparent consequences, we must also seek to undermine the unexpected ones too.
It may be that these consequences are as damaging to our societies as the more predictable ones. The challenge clearly is the need to respond to all of these in new ways and from multiple perspectives.
Dr Catherine Farrell is a Senior Lecturer in Public Management at Cardiff Business School.
She is programme director for the part time MSc Public Leadership at Cardiff University.