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10 July 2019

A patchwork of vulnerabilities to the Covid-19 crisis around England


The current crisis is unlike any the UK has faced in living memory. While the most immediate effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are felt by the people who catch the virus, the global efforts to curtail its spread mean that this is very much also an economic and a social crisis, as well as a public health one.

While each of these dimensions of the crisis is important, they will affect different parts of England very differently. Rather than the typical north-south or urban-rural divides, the geography of vulnerabilities in this crisis is a patchwork, with even neighbouring local authorities set to have very different experiences. As England eases its lockdown, policymakers both in local councils and in Whitehall need to recognise that the problems faced around the country are not at all the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach for policy is unlikely to suit all areas equally. Indeed, against the backdrop of an easing lockdown in England, the government has reintroduced tighter controls in Leicester in response to a local outbreak.

There is no one measure of vulnerability to this crisis

A local economy will suffer more if a higher proportion of workers are employed in the sectors, like tourism and hospitality, which had to close during the lockdown (and will still be impeded by continued social distancing even as the lockdown is eased). These economic impacts are being felt now (through higher rates of unemployment and furloughing), and might well persist if people who lose jobs in these sectors struggle to find new ones. An area with a high dependence on hospitality sectors may therefore benefit from a speedier opening up of the economy.

But what if that area also has an older population, or one where the underlying conditions that are associated with a higher risk from Covid-19 are more prevalent? An area like that may do better opening up more slowly, to protect the health of its residents. Add in the effects of lockdown on families – disadvantaged children are less able to cope with home learning than their better-off classmates, and children at risk of harm could face heightened risks during lockdown – and the balance may again tip towards opening up more quickly.

Clearly there are considerable trade-offs when easing lockdown restrictions, and these trade-offs are likely to vary across England. In this crisis, the country is essentially a patchwork of areas, with even neighbouring local authorities facing different risks.

The map below shows which upper-tier local authorities (LAs) may be more vulnerable than average on the three factors outlined above: workers, health and families. Often, an area will not be in the bottom half on more than one of these factors, which can be quite unrelated to another dimension of vulnerability to the crisis. The map highlights which areas are among the most vulnerable half of local authorities on two or more factors.

Some areas, shown in black, are particularly vulnerable on all three factors. Although a mixed set of areas, they are concentrated in coastal areas: by far the two areas most vulnerable areas on all three factors are Torbay and the Isle of Wight. These areas are popular retirement destinations, and so have relatively elderly populations, which would suggest a slow easing of lockdown is optimal. However, they also contain pockets of high deprivation, which brings risks for children’s time out of school. These areas are also incredibly reliant on the hospitality and tourism sectors, which account for 16% and 17% of jobs in the Isle of Wight and Torbay respectively (compared to under 9% in England as a whole), so they badly need to open up to visitors.

Many coastal areas face a similar trade-off – the areas highlighted in orange are dependent on the tourism and hospitality sector for jobs, but also have relatively elderly and unhealthy populations. At the same time, there is tension between older residents’ health and younger residents’ education in many of the former industrial areas of England, highlighted in green, and clustered around Birmingham, the former coalfields of Yorkshire, North Nottinghamshire and the North-East.

Thanks to their dense populations and international links, urban areas like London saw some of the first, most rapidly spreading outbreaks of the disease. However, the populations in cities tend to be relatively younger and so less at risk of the most extreme symptoms of Covid-19. On the other hand, many urban areas – shown in purple – face economic and social risks: they employ a lot of workers in hospitality, tourism and non-food retail, and many inner-city boroughs also have high levels of disadvantage and vulnerability among children.

Policy during a pandemic

This analysis shows that even neighbouring areas can have different vulnerabilities to the different aspects of this crisis. Trade-offs between protecting people’s health whilst enabling economic activity and avoiding long-lasting consequences for children will be difficult, and the ideal balance is likely to look very different even in neighbouring local authorities.

And these consequences will differ not just over space, but also over time. The health dimension is likely to be felt most in the short-term; but if or when a vaccine or treatment is found, the medium-term process of economic recovery, and the long-term consequences for children’s education, will be ever more at the forefront of policy.

This calls for a local and geographically varying response to the crisis, with areas being able to adopt policies to suit their needs. However, coordination is also needed – local authorities in neighbouring areas may need to work together, because many people in a different place from where they work. Coordination between local and national government is also important, since each level of government has responsibility for different dimensions of the crisis.

There are inevitable tensions between the benefits of local policies to reflect the local balance of risks, and the need for national government to manage overarching challenges and ensure fairness around the country. School re-openings are a good example of the challenges: while LAs and academies both have some responsibility for education, Whitehall has an interest as well if children are to sit national exams and be scored in common with their peers around the country. But coordination in this area has not always worked well: the Department for Education’s initial plans for reopening schools to some year groups on 1 June were announced and then publicly refused by some councils.

Trade-offs abound during the crisis: policymakers need to balance the health, economic and social risks of their response. There are benefits to more localised policymaking, but potentially risks as well. What is clear, though, is that better communication between policymakers at all levels can only help to improve the response to the patchwork of vulnerabilities to the current crisis.

About the authors: Alex Davenport is a Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. His research focuses on regional economic development and trade.Christine Farquharson is a Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Her research focuses on education policy in England and on child development. Imran Rasul is Research Co-director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Professor of Economics at UCL. His research focuses on education, labour and development economics.

The report “The geography of the COVID-19 crisis in England” was published on 15 June 2020 and is available here.

The authors are grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this work through the flagship IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities in the 21st Century.

This article was originally published on the Geography Directions website. Find out more.