By Des McNulty, Deputy Director of Policy Scotland and Assistant Vice-Principal, Economic Development and Civic Engagement, at the University of Glasgow.
Most of the policy levers for dealing with the public health emergency are concentrated at national government level. But the key delivery agencies responding to the crisis, health boards and local government have a conurbation, city or more local place focus.
They are having to deal not only with health and social care provision but also with the economic and social effects of the lockdown, which will vary from place to place. Due to the scale of the crisis, the focus is on dealing with immediate pressures, affecting the capacity of these organisations to scope out and map the next stages, when there is a partial or gradual withdrawal of restrictions on normal working (when the focus will be on building growth and resilience) and then in the recovery or rehabilitation phase which requires a co-ordinated and targeted effort if places are to bounce back from the shock.
In this context there is an obligation, as well as an opportunity, for universities to provide expert advice and practical assistance to civic partners, building on existing collaboration and strong relationships. We see three spatial levels at which universities can make their contribution:
- At local level, universities can help co-ordinate activity across key institutions and contribute their expertise and evidence to inform understanding and the response of civic partners to the economic and social as well as the public health effects of the coronavirus event. They are anchor institutions and large businesses, with a significant impact on local economies.
- At both local and national level, universities can contribute by scoping policies and monitoring their effectiveness in complex local settings where health and resilience considerations take precedence and economic and social policies are geared towards mitigation and supporting targeted groups and activities.
- Nationally and internationally, universities can play a pivotal role in gathering information and sharing good practice, translating lessons learned from one setting to another.
Amongst the issues that have been highlighted in the Glasgow City Region are:
The need for data and information to support resilience planning. More analysis is urgently needed about which sectors, firms and households in our region are most at risk from various economic and social impacts and what the likely scale of these impacts might be.
The need for better communications channels with businesses. For most businesses the pressing concern is liquidity and the focus of public authorities has been on the distribution of grants and loans. But there needs to be two-way information flows that enable businesses to share information with each other and with councils and economic development agencies.
The need for better understanding of spatial impact. In the short and medium term, the city centre is affected by the shut down in retail, leisure and cultural activities. Meantime outlying areas are experiencing different impacts, depending on their social and economic characteristics. In the 2008 economic crisis some groups in the population and some places were more adversely affected than others – will it be the same groups and places this time?
The significance of the digital divide. The crisis has highlighted a deep division between those who can access services and information through digital channels and a substantial section of the population who lack either the skills or access to equipment needed to claim basic entitlements or interact with key agencies.
Strains caused by the lockdown will have different manifestations. In one place there might be a sudden increase in volumes of street crime and burglaries, in another place the impact might be a spike in drug-related deaths. Concerns about the medium- and longer-term consequences include the mental health and physical health /chronic disease effects which, on past evidence, are likely to impact on economic participation as well as on pressures on health and social care services. Although disruption to normal working is an immediate concern, more information is needed about which groups are going to be most affected in terms of jobs/earnings loss; what impact the crisis could have in the future on employment and earnings – the skills and confidence loss from a period without work, for example; or the impacts on school/education leavers attempting to start their working lives. The risk that older / sicker people will be unable to get back into work after the crisis is officially over and effectively retire or stop work early is another concern.
Universities can draw on internal expertise and the expertise of research partners. They can also access a deep pool of expertise via their wider networks and the global academy. In the emergency phase and the phases that will follow, health, local government and economic development organisations, as well as the community and voluntary sector, need help. This could take a variety of forms including co-produced action research; provision of expert knowledge across a range of specialisms; and practical assistance in generating and analysing new forms or sources of data.
As well as having strong relationships with the local authorities and other key civic partners in the Glasgow City Region, Policy Scotland has close links with the Scottish and UK governments, with national agencies and with international partners. In the context of COVID-19, Policy Scotland will act as a conduit for linking policymakers and those responsible for its implementation to academic expertise across a range of disciplines.
The aim is, firstly, to help those at the frontline deal with the attendant economic, social and environmental disruptions linked to the health emergency – especially in mitigating the greater burdens imposed on vulnerable populations.
Secondly, we will mobilise not just our own resource within Policy Scotland but colleagues across Glasgow University to contribute their knowledge and expertise to help civic leaders and local anchor institutions prepare for the rebuilding work which lies ahead. We will engage with policy partners to understand their needs and respond to their priorities and, so far as possible, address them with practical solutions-focused policy advice and support for monitoring implementation.
Thirdly, we will generate and publish horizon scanning and future-oriented briefings which scope out imaginative futures and advocate transformative policies for the City Region, drawing on research we have already undertaken and further planned work. While Glasgow will be a major focus, we will explore experience here, elsewhere in the UK and across the world to identify and gather in the most promising ideas. We would ask academic colleagues if their expertise is relevant, to get in touch and discuss with us and discuss how they could help.
Our website is not just for work generated by staff working within Policy Scotland – we want Glasgow University staff and civic partners to join us in helping policymakers respond to the challenges that we face as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19). If there is good practice elsewhere in Scotland, in the UK or internationally that we and members of the policy communities we engage with can all learn from, please let us know so we can highlight it.
Cite this article: McNulty, Des. COVID-19: How Glasgow University and Policy Scotland can contribute to the response, Policy Scotland, 15 April 2020, https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/covid-19-how-glasgow-university-and-policy-scotland-can-contribute-to-the-response
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