‘Shaping the COVID Decade’, explained in two minutes

by Professor Dominic Abrams FBA

23 Mar 2021

Addressing the social and economic devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious challenge that UK policymakers have faced for generations. In 2020, GDP contracted by 9.9% (the largest drop since records began) and during the March ‘21 budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, warned: “It's going to take this country a long time to recover from this extraordinary economic situation”. With deaths exceeded only by those suffered in the world wars, the pandemic has killed 125,000 UK citizens to date. For many times that number, it has caused myriad social, financial, psychological and health issues pointing to the much wider societal implications.

Faced with this challenge, the Government Office for Science invited the British Academy to write a report on the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on society.

Drawing on the unique insights and expertise of scholars from SHAPE disciplines (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy), the British Academy’s review has two reports, the first of which, The COVID Decade: Understanding the Long-term Societal Impacts of COVID-19 contains extensive evidence on the many different ways that COVID has affected the nation and points to nine significant areas of impact.

Children wearing face masks form a socially distanced queue outside their school. Photo by Getty Images.

Seven strategic goals

The second report, Shaping the COVID Decade: addressing the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19, goes on to address the question of what is to be done. We identify seven strategic policy goals that, if pursued together, will provide a strong foundation for effective UK policy in the years ahead.

The goals are to:

  • Build multi-level governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to local needs;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • Reimagine urban spaces to support sustainable and adaptable local businesses, amenities and lifestyles;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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.

Alongside these broad strategic goals, the report puts forward an illustrative selection of innovative and proactive policy opportunities which could not only help to alleviate the aftereffects of COVID but also provide the means for the nation to respond to future crises more effectively.

Full report

Shaping the COVID decade

Addressing the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19

More powers for local authorities, reimaging urban spaces and upgrading digital infrastructure

Several themes bind together the Academy’s proposals, including a focus on responsiveness, communication and connectivity. In practice, this means – for instance – increasing the breadth and depth of expertise in research, data analysis and communication across local government, for example by considering locally grounded scientific advisory networks and local observatories that bring together local expertise in universities, civil society groups, local government and businesses.

It means developing a strong vision for urban planning that focuses on sustainable ways to maintain population density, drawing on the evidence of successful strategies in the UK and abroad, and exploring initiatives like hyper-localisation of amenities, green spaces and traffic-free streets.

And it means immediately upgrading digital infrastructure across the whole of the UK. A start would be reaffirming the commitment to completing the rollout of full fibre broadband by 2025 and ensuring the appropriate investment, incentives and policies are put in place to meet this. But we must also explore further opportunities for deploying digital technology in the provision of public services.

CLEAR policymaking for a better future

We believe that our seven strategic goals can be taken up by decision-makers at all levels, in every part of the country, to respond to the key societal impacts of COVID-19 and help build a thriving society in the UK by the end of the decade. However, the actions of decision-makers are taken within a wider policy environment with its own cultures, norms and relationships as well as complex structures and processes – and the UK’s policy environment needs work. As our report says, a successful recovery by 2030 requires the policy environment to be CLEAR: Communicative, Learning, Engaging, Adaptive and Relational.

If policymakers can effect change along these lines, the UK will not just be able to recover from COVID-19 but will also be well-placed to thrive amid the challenges of the 21st century, from future pandemics to climate change and the many crises that surely await us. COVID has laid bare the vulnerabilities in our society and made bold and innovative policymaking essential and undeferrable. The time to start is now.


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