Anthony Campbell, Professor at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Cardiff University
Brian Morgan, School of Management, Cardiff Metropolitan University
Fortunately, the distressing health and infection difficulties of COVID 19 are slowly being brought under control.
However, the lockdown is beginning to have a devastating impact on the economy of Wales, as well as on the education and scientific research sectors. The economy has stalled and important commercial sectors face severe long term damage unless the economy is opened up.
The education sector is also suffering and Welsh school children will be at an increasing disadvantage unless we see a successful return to full-time education in September. Otherwise, educational inequality will increase both within Wales and between Wales and England – Welsh teenagers will find it difficult to compete against their peer groups in England for university places and ultimately for jobs.
And if children are not in full-time education then their parents cannot easily return to work. This will exacerbate the economic recovery of local economies and lead to more deprivation.
The Wales COVID Communication Group (WCCG *) seeks to address these issues, establish a vehicle for regular communication between the business, education and science sectors and identify a way for the Welsh Government to open up the economy and keep it open.
Responding to the crisis should be seen as an opportunity to support new industries and focus on strategic initiatives which will make a real difference rather than simply propping up lame ducks. And Welsh businesses will need to be incentivised to harness the opportunities that are springing up within the new norms. Investments in green infrastructure offer important opportunities, such as in the hydrogen economy and harnessing the tidal power in the Severn and the Conwy.
A new inward investment strategy could be developed to attract international research institutions focused on virus control and manufacturing companies engaged in the production of vaccines. None of this will be easy, but many of these companies will be looking to develop new operations and we have the science base required to support these organisations.
But first, we need to be clear ‘what’ our goal is and ‘how’ we plan to respond. Is the goal to eliminate the virus or protect those who are most vulnerable? A data-driven, evidence-based approach is the right way forward. Infections and death rates must be tracked, as well as mental health issues, poverty rates and unemployment.
The NHS has done a great job in rapidly reorganising facilities at the hospital level. But we must not waste the opportunity to use this experience to reform the way our health system is run. Likewise, schools, universities and colleges have responded quickly by moving towards greater use of remote delivery vehicles.
But more can be done and greater investment in digital infrastructure will be needed to allow this to become the norm. We need to ensure that everyone has access to the internet and enough bandwidth to make full use of the new opportunities for remote learning and working.
A first step to opening up key sectors will be to encourage people in the public sector, as well as business leaders, to develop a much better understanding of ‘relative risk’. Such a change of mind-set will be required to reopen the leisure and arts sectors. e.g. cultural sector productions rely on many people congregating together in a shared experience.
Theatre and opera will be particularly difficult to stage and the appetite for audiences to congregate is difficult to assess. Hence, while the funding offered by the Treasury to support the Welsh creative sector is welcome, the underlying problems will require much longer-term solutions.
Responding effectively to further attacks will require an objective assessment of how the authorities have performed during this outbreak. This is not to imply that the Welsh government has performed poorly. But waiting two years or more for the results of a UK-wide public inquiry is not an option – speed is of the essence. A more limited inquiry should be concluded swiftly so that the lessons learned can be implemented before a possible winter spike.
We will be asking the Welsh Government to commission an independent inquiry to include academia (scientists and virologists), business, education and local government.
Crucial questions will be:
- Why haven’t we been able to deliver a better system of tracing and testing, and why has so much capacity in the NHS, universities and the private sector been “underutilised”?
- Why have COVID mortality rates differed both within Wales and across the nations and regions of the UK?
- How wide is the advice that the Welsh Government has drawn upon? e.g. has there been limited use of virologists as opposed to modellers?
- Has there been any devolution of decision-making within Wales – such as better use of local public health capacity?
- Is there a case for increasing capacity in local public health departments quickly since an effective trace and test system has to be delivered locally?
Hopefully, an inquiry will help us address these important issues. Our aim is to encourage the government to move from “generic” solutions, such as lockdown, to more “targeted” and localised approaches.
* WCCG is non-party; it aims to work with the business, science and education sectors to create a sound evidence-base to inform government and other stakeholders on ways to open up the Welsh economy – particularly those key sectors that are currently under enormous pressure