We need an evidence-based recovery from the coronavirus pandemic

4 June 2020

By Professor Steve Martin (Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Wales Centre for Public Policy, Cardiff University)

It’s June 2016 and the UK Justice Secretary is telling a Sky News Q&A on Brexit ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’.  Fast forward four years and it all feels very different. Now it seems that politicians and public alike just can’t get enough of experts.

The coronavirus pandemic has propelled epidemiologists, behavioural scientists and a host of other researchers into the media spotlight. Our governments have made a virtue of ‘following the science’ and households across the UK tune in to Number 10 press briefings for their daily dose of data on infection rates, hospital admissions and COVID-19-related deaths.

So is this voracious consumption of scientific advice a blip, the product of an unprecedented crisis that will wane as the pandemic abates? Or does it point to a new regard for experts and expertise that presents an opportunity to build a lasting consensus in favour of evidence informed public policy?

Our experience at the Wales Centre for Public Policy is that ministers and public service leaders really do value independent evidence so long as it addresses the issues which they are concerned about at the right time and in the right formats. As lockdown restrictions are eased and thoughts turn to life beyond the immediate crisis, we believe that experts can and should play a significant role in helping to inform post-pandemic recovery strategies.

Ministers in Wales are already actively seeking out independent evidence and advice to inform their thinking. They have convened six roundtables with international, UK and local experts to advise on ways in which the Welsh Government can mitigate the economic and social impacts of the pandemic and support a green recovery. This is a challenging agenda because there’s so much we still don’t know about the disease itself and the economic and social fallout.  We can’t be sure how deep and how long the economic downturn will be, and it’s too early to tell whether and if so how people’s attitudes and individual behaviours have been reshaped by the crisis. But it is possible to predict at least some of the problems that we need to grapple with in the recovery phase and some of the opportunities that this presents to build back better.

We know that the pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities in health outcomes, educational attainment and economic opportunity, and that there aren’t any easy answers to these long-standing ‘wicked problems’. However, the immediate response to the pandemic gives some grounds for optimism. It has already unlocked new ways of working and accelerated service transformation. GP consultations and out-patient clinics have moved on-line. Community capacity has been mobilised to support vulnerable people. Rough sleepers are in emergency accommodation. People have rediscovered their local shops. Remote working has cut congestion and improved air quality. And the public has stood and applauded the contribution of hitherto undervalued and poorly paid key workers.   We can draw on these innovations and behavioural shifts, as well as on the evidence from previous economic shocks, to inform post-pandemic recovery strategies.

Policy makers and the public are going to need scientific expertise (in its broadest sense) to address the important ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions of recovery.  We need to monitor the economic and social impacts of the pandemic in real time.  We need to identify those who are most at risk. And we need to identify interventions that will be most effective in supporting them.

We know which sectors and which groups are most vulnerable. In Wales for example, tourism, hospitality, leisure, aerospace, and automotive industries are all major employers and will be slow to bounce back. This will hit some communities and some sections of the population particularly hard. People aged 18-24, including recent graduates loaded with student debt, and those in low skill occupations, will be most at risk of unemployment and underemployment, and we know that time spent out of the labour market at this early stage in their careers could have long-term scarring effects. But we also need to support working people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who may struggle to find alternative employment. Patients who can’t access online consultations because they lack the necessary skills, devices or broadband access could be left with inferior residual services. Similarly, children and young people from poorer backgrounds may struggle to benefit from remote learning with the result that school closures widen the educational attainment gap.

Meanwhile public services hollowed out by a decade of austerity will face renewed fiscal and demand pressures. The health service will have to respond to pent up demand for elective surgery. Care workers will expect improved pay and conditions at a time when many care homes may be teetering on the brink of insolvency.  Social distancing and fear of infection on public transport will mean that bus and train services have to find a way to cope with reduced passenger numbers and decreased revenues for the foreseeable future.

It is important that government responses to these and other emerging policy challenges are informed by the evidence from around the world.  Individual scholars can play a part. Research funders are prioritising work on some of these issues.  Evidence centres such as my own organisation will continue to work with policy makers to identify their evidence needs and mobilise expertise to meet them. But perhaps we will need a more concerted effort to evaluate and curate evidence to tackle the economic and social challenges created by the pandemic, based on the SAGE model. How about a Scientific Advisory Group for post-COVID-19 recovery?

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19

Professor Steve Martin is the Director of the Wales Centre for Public Policy and Professor of Public Policy and Management in Cardiff University’s Business School. His research has focused on public policy evaluation and public service improvement, and he is acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading academic experts on local government policy.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.