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15 June 2020

The geography of the COVID-19 crisis in England

The COVID-19 crisis has affected every part of the country – and indeed many other countries. What sets this crisis apart is the many different ways that it is impacting families: while the virus itself is primarily a public health issue, the unprecedented responses it has necessitated mean that this is also very much an economic and a social crisis.

This is not to say that it is equally all of these things to all people – some families, and some areas, will be particularly vulnerable to the virus’s health impacts, while others look to be hit particularly hard on economic or social dimensions.

In this report, we analyse how these different dimensions of the crisis vary around England. We document the geography of the COVID-19 crisis along three dimensions: health, jobs and families. We explore which local authorities (LAs) have residents who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 symptoms, because of their age or pre-existing conditions; which LAs have a greater share of workers in shut-down sectors such as retail or hospitality; and which LAs have a greater share of children either eligible for free school meals or receiving children’s social services, who might be at particular educational or social risk from the crisis. We show how these dimensions of vulnerability in health, jobs and families relate to each other. We bring these findings together to document the extent to which local areas might be affected along multiple dimensions of the crisis.

The issue of interrelated vulnerabilities should remain at the forefront of policymaking. Government’s approach to easing the lockdown needs to protect public health while enabling economic activity and minimising the real social costs of isolation. Our results suggest that the balance between these different goals might look very different around the country.

Key findings

There is no one measure of vulnerability that can summarise which areas will be hardest hit during the crisis. The pandemic will have health, economic and social costs, and on average areas that are more vulnerable along one dimension are relatively less vulnerable along the others. Standard measures of local socio-economic deprivation do not identify well areas most vulnerable to the crisis.

However, some local authorities (LAs) are more vulnerable than average on health, economic and social lines. These nine LAs are spread around the country and include both urban areas (such as Blackpool) and rural places (such as Dorset). Torbay and the Isle of Wight stand out even among this group; they are in the top 20% most vulnerable on each index, reflecting their elderly populations, economic reliance on tourism and hospitality, and pockets of local socio-economic deprivation. There are also 17 LAs that appear relatively unaffected along all three dimensions; these areas are concentrated in the South East and East of England.

Many coastal areas are notably vulnerable along both health and jobs dimensions. Coastal towns already rank highly in terms of overall deprivation, and the crisis could be set to make these inequalities with non-coastal areas even wider.

Areas in the northern spine of England are more vulnerable than average along health and family dimensions: these include South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, which have relatively older, more deprived populations. Other such areas are clustered in the West Midlands (particularly around Birmingham) and in the cities of the North West and North East.

While London has seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 so far, its population is less vulnerable to experiencing serious symptoms from the disease. Within London, boroughs with younger, healthier populations have seen many fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. However, many London boroughs will face significant economic and social costs, as shut-down sectors such as hospitality and tourism are important employers and many schoolchildren are from disadvantaged families, where home learning is on average more difficult.

While there are some regional patterns in vulnerabilities, in many cases neighbouring LAs look set to have very different experiences of the crisis. For example, Nottinghamshire has very different exposure from that of neighbouring Leicestershire on all three dimensions of vulnerability.

The types of trade-offs policymakers will face in easing lockdown will vary between different kinds of areas, but the existence of trade-offs largely will not. The trade-offs might be compounded as different dimensions of vulnerability come with different timescales; for example, health vulnerabilities might come to the fore in the next year, while it could take years or even decades for the full impact of children’s vulnerability to school closures to be felt.

Policymakers at different levels of government will have to coordinate to respond effectively to these different types of need. Different areas of vulnerability will fall within the remit of different levels of government, meaning that a joined-up approach will be necessary for effective policymaking. National policymakers should also be alert to differences in local needs when making policy in these areas.

Download the data tables here.