The Coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the world we live in and in which the Citizens’ Assembly now operates. The impacts are profound and the outlook remains uncertain. To help members to take this into account as they come back together to prepare the final outputs of the Assembly, the Secretariat has prepared a range of ‘horizon scanning’ materials providing information about the impact of COVID and ideas about responses to it. We are calling these materials the ‘journey to come’. This overview explains the approach we have taken and what is in these materials.
‘Horizon scanning’ is an approach often used by governments, policy makers and businesses to help see whether they are adequately prepared for future changes or threats. It is not about predicting the future but is about looking at evidence, identifying future threats and opportunities, and considering ideas and solutions for dealing with these.
Our approach involves the following 2 phases of activity:
Phase One - Pre-Assembly. These materials which have been produced to help members prepare themselves for discussion of COVID in the Assembly. The materials are:
- This overview and 3 themed papers and videos on the Economy, Public Finances and Social Impacts, Environmental Sustainability, and How Decisions are Taken which provide a snapshot of important issues around COVID
- ‘Bridging’ video interviews with previous speakers providing insights into how their views may have changed in the light of the crisis
- Links to additional resources for members to draw on if they wish to explore any of the issues in more detail.
- Discussion questions in the website members forum where members can discuss and share thoughts about COVID and the evidence in these materials.
Phase Two - Assembly session on COVID. This will cover the experience and impact of COVID and what is important to take into account in final conclusions. The session will cover:
- An overview presentation, which will bring together the main insights and evidence on the pandemic across the range of pre-assembly materials, including member responses to online discussions, as well as some ideas from new expert witnesses.
- Member deliberation to discuss the range of evidence and to consider key points that you agree will be important to take into account in the Assembly outputs
Impacts and responses to the pandemic
Exceptional though this period is for most people in Scotland, pandemics are a central part of the human story. From the earliest documented times they have changed the course of history, shaped societies and influenced the development of the role of government, especially around what we now call public health. In fact infectious disease has been the biggest killer throughout history and while we have seen dramatic breakthroughs through the discovery of vaccines and drugs like penicillin by our fellow scot Alexander Fleming, the number of new infectious diseases (like Sars, HIV and COVID-19) increased by nearly fourfold over the past century. This latest pandemic highlights how vulnerable we are and will continue to be in the future.
As at 11 August, the pandemic has led to 727,435 COVID-19 related deaths and 19,687,156 COVID-19 infections worldwide, with 46,526 deaths in the UK and 4,208 deaths in Scotland. The global nature of the impact on our health system and economy and the policy interventions restricting how we work and learn and our ability to travel and be with friends and family, have been unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.
Governments around the world have made major interventions to curb the spread of the virus. Huge sectors of the economy have shut-down and lockdown measures imposed to restrict the movements of citizens. Around the world we continue to see high numbers of deaths, concerns for our most vulnerable citizens, including in care homes and pressures on health care services. Restrictions have led to social isolation, loneliness, financial worries and a related rise in mental health issues. We are undergoing the greatest short-term reductions in economic output ever recorded with many businesses and employees struggling financially, especially in the worst hit sectors and the outlook for many important economic sectors is very uncertain.
To counteract the economic impact of these interventions, governments across the world have intervened with extraordinary levels of public spending to support businesses, protect jobs and support those groups of society mostly badly hit. The speed and scale of these interventions in the economy in many countries are well beyond anything seen before in peacetime.
The path of the pandemic and the sustainability of the responses and long-term impacts are unknown. However, discussion in many countries is turning to how we recover and renew from the effects of the crisis. In doing so many commentators suggest that the interventions from governments and the willingness of the public to change behaviour as setting an example of what could be done to promote more ambitious reform. A central theme in many discussions is about the need for a green and fair recovery and to withstand the risks of the future through building a more resilient economy. On the other hand, the actions that have been taken have also highlighted sharp differences in political views within countries about the legitimate role of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
Although there has been much talk of ‘all being in this together’, it is widely accepted that the impact of COVID has been most severe in more deprived communities and within certain groups. Socio-economic inequalities seem to be deepening as a result of the crisis. Following the death of George Floyd in the United States over this period around the world we have also seen a sustained wave of protest in support of the ‘Black Lives matter’ movement, including in the UK a resurgence of debate about racism and racial inequalities and the historic legacy of slavery.
The rest of this paper introduces some of the key evidence around the three themes developed by the Assembly to date and which is set out in more detail in the three longer summary papers.
Economy, Public Finances and Social impacts
The pandemic has triggered the most severe global recession in nearly a century, far surpassing the financial crash of 2008. Unemployment is rising rapidly, a range of business sectors have been badly hit and certain regions are struggling including rural areas which rely on tourism. Evidence shows that the pandemic has deepened existing inequalities, with young people, women and low income households most impacted financially but also in terms of reduced wellbeing. The educational attainment gap between poorest and most affluent young people have been exacerbated by school closures and differences in access to digital learning. Health inequalities are worsening, with those living in deprived areas of Scotland being twice as likely to die of COVID-19 as those in least deprived areas.
Globally, the immediate responses to counteract these social and economic impacts can be seen in the unprecedented levels of public spending. The UK Government’s policy measures are estimated to be around £193 billion, including the Job Retention Scheme to furlough employees. With tax revenues expected to decrease and the UK likely to emerge from the pandemic with its highest level of debt since the Second World War, there is undoubted growing pressure on public finances.
Although the immediate policy action has been significant, big questions remain over whether the kind of interventions being proposed by Governments is on a scale and of a kind that meets the needs that businesses and citizens to help them make the necessary transitions over a longer period. Most commentators argue that recovery will be a very long process and that the economy that emerges will be very different to that of the pre-COVID period. There have been a wide range of ideas discussed about longer-term recovery, with many commentators focussed on the opportunity to build an economy that is green, fair and resilient. Specific ideas cover steps to ensure everyone has good and fair work, for universal basic income, for tax reform and, more generally, and for a renewed social contract between citizens and the state to protect the most vulnerable from any future risks.
While there have been short term positive effects of the pandemic on reducing emissions due to less travel and industrial activity and shifts on public attitudes, some experts are concerned that these will not be maintained and are not enough to mitigate against climate change. There are concerns that economic pressures will lead to a ‘dirty recovery’ in some business practices across the world while public attention and critical resources could be diverted from addressing the climate crisis to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak over the longer term. However, many governments across the world, including the Scottish Government, have highlighted the need for a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic. Green campaigners argue that the pandemic is an opportunity to reset the economy along more sustainable lines, an idea related to the Assembly’s priorities on environmental sustainability. While there’s much attention on reducing carbon emissions, and international effort to develop a vaccine for this pandemic, environmental experts also warn of the need to consider broader environmental issues to help reduce the risk of future pandemics.
How Decisions are taken
Across the world, governments have asked a lot of their citizens to follow hygiene, social distancing and lockdown measures. The evidence for these measures and the legitimate role for governments in imposing lockdown has been challenged by some people and has played out differently in different political cultures, but in the main the public in most countries have been supportive of and complied with restrictions. While lockdowns have begun to ease in some countries, we have seen resurgences in some places and local restrictions being re-imposed, highlighting uncertainty about the future, the likelihood of local variations and the risks that consensus on complying with restrictions may begin to wear thin over time.
The quality of political debate, honesty in politics and public trust in politicians - how politics is conducted – have been hugely important in the response to COVID, particularly when
clarity of message and consistency of behaviour is likely to impact on the compliance with lockdown rules. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of and some of the tensions in co-operation between governments both internationally and within the UK and the continuing importance of reaching agreement on a trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.
Co-operation between government, private sector, third sector organisations and citizens have been central to the response to COVID in many countries. In Scotland, more than 76,000 people in Scotland signed up to volunteer to deliver food parcels and essential medicines, businesses changed production to provide sanitiser and PPE products and government and third sector organisations worked together at speed to remove rough sleepers from the streets into hotel rooms and temporary accommodation. There has been much discussion about how the response to COVID demonstrates that a new approach to politics, including to ensure more effective community and citizen participation is both necessary and possible.
Although the world faces significant new challenges and uncertainty, the crisis has also demonstrated what can be achieved through determined intervention and collaborative action which in turn opens up new possibilities as well as fresh challenges. Many of the impacts of COVID and wider responses to the crisis gel with the thinking already going on in the Assembly and it is important that you now take stock of developments to consider how this will shape our overall conclusions and recommendation. Without a doubt the task we face is great and the pressure on resources are immense, but perhaps more than ever this is the right time for Scotland to pause and think carefully about what we want to become and how we can deliver the change this will require.