Britain faces a “Covid decade” of social and cultural upheaval marked by growing inequality and deepening economic deprivation, a landmark review has concluded.
Patrick Butler www.theguardian.com
Major changes to the way society is run in the wake of the pandemic are needed to mitigate the impact of the “long shadow” cast by the virus, including declining public trust and an explosion in mental illness, the British Academy report found.
Published on the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, the report brings together more than 200 academic social science and humanities experts and hundreds of research projects. It was set up last year at the behest of the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
The British Academy warned that failure to understand the scale of the challenge ahead and deliver changes would result in a rapid slide towards poorer societal health, more extreme patterns of inequality and fragmenting national unity.
Government-led intervention including major investment in public services is required to repair the “profound social damage” caused or exacerbated by coronavirus across areas including the economy, mental health, public trust and education, it said.
“With the advent of vaccines and the imminent ending of lockdowns, we might think that the impact of Covid-19 is coming to an end. This would be wrong. We are in a Covid decade: the social, economic and cultural effects of the pandemic will cast a long shadow into the future – perhaps longer than a decade,” it said.
The report’s publication came as Boris Johnson delivered an upbeat reflection on what he called one of the most difficult years in the UK’s history, offering condolences to those who lost family and friends to the virus but paying tribute to the “great spirit” shown by the nation.
“We have all played our part, whether it’s working on the frontline as a nurse or carer, working on vaccine development and supply, helping to get that jab into arms, home-schooling your children, or just by staying at home to prevent the spread of the virus,” the prime minister said. “It’s because of every person in this country that lives have been saved, our NHS was protected, and we have started on our cautious road to easing restrictions once and for all.”
The British Academy cautions against overoptimism as the UK thinks about recovery from Covid, however, warning that it is “no ordinary crisis” that can be fixed by a return to normal, but one that thrived amid pre-existing social deprivations and inequalities and which has exposed deep-seated flaws in public policy.
Too many people experienced the pandemic in poor housing, were badly equipped for home schooling and home working and vulnerable to poor mental health, and found themselves at high risk of economic insecurity, the report said, pointing out that “many people are ‘newly poor’ and only one month’s wages away from poverty”.
Areas for action highlighted by the report include:
- Declining public trust: after an initial surge in the first months of the pandemic, trust in UK government and feelings of national unity collapsed, with little sign that progress on vaccinations has halted the trend. Unless addressed, this will erode social cohesion and undermine future public health campaigns.
- Widening inequalities: geographic, health, racial, gender, digital and economic inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid. If not tackled, they risk becoming permanently locked in, scarring the prospects of groups disproportionately affected by the social impact of the virus, such as young people.
- Worsening mental health: soaring mental illness, especially among children, low-income households and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, risks embedding long-term problems if the underlying causes are not tackled.
The report calls for renewed spending on community services, local government, social care and local charities, especially in deprived areas, noting that some of the most effective responses to Covid have been at a local level, where public trust has remained strong. Investment was need to erase the digital divide and establish internet access as a “critical, life-changing public service”.
With unemployment expected to rise, the report questions whether the existing social security system, which is geared more towards helping low-paid workers than people without jobs, could cope with a pandemic-induced recession, saying: “This may prompt reflection on what kind of system the country wants and needs.”
The lead author of the report, Dominic Abrams, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, said the investment package needed would be expensive, but that much could be achieved by reframing existing policies. “I don’t think this is necessarily about extra money, it’s [about shining] a laser light over existing policies.”
Asked whether he was optimistic that the government was open to making changes on the scale the academy called for, Abrams said this was an opportunity to address a range of serious social issues that were not going away. Without a post-pandemic strategy, he said, “these things will get worse”.
Hetan Shah, the 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.”