Covid-19 policy is social policy by Rebecca Tunstall

Prof Becky Tunstall, University of York

Woman cleaning with mask and gloves
Image by Pixabay

What are you doing right now? Marking, meetings and deadlines as usual? Home schooling and working at the same time? Worrying about someone who is ill, or alone, or who needs support? Worrying about your job security? Struggling with illness yourself? Or following any of the numerous recommendations for filling spare time with athletic, cultural and gastronomic extravaganzas? The personal is political, and policy-relevant. Covid-19 has tipped up the familiar snakes and ladders board and created a new and little-understood world of inequalities and social and policy problems.

A new world of inequalities

In a few short weeks, shocks to health have been compounded by shocks to income and shocks of policy. Institutions have gone through reorganisations that put all the previous ones in the shade. Speedy policy choices have thought outside many of the boxes and stomped on them. As long ago as March, Prof Paul Dolan of the LSE said in a blog, “Covid-19 is a public health crisis…. But it is an economic and social crisis too – and yet social scientists have hardly been heard from.”

Which experts are the right experts?

The UK government, like others round the world, has undergone a welcome reconciliation with experts and expertise. However, so far, the emphasis has been very much on medical sciences and modelling. The long-mysterious membership of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for the UK, has become a political issue, and contrasts with the position in Scotland where membership of the parallel group and its recent minutes are public. However, unofficial reports suggest SAGE includes few social scientists or social policists, and voices including self-outed members of SAGE, the Royal Society and former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell are now arguing for more diversity. The need for a wider perspective has been recognised by both Parliament and the Cabinet Office, which have launched a general call-out for expertise, albeit almost 3 months after Covid-19 was declared a global emergency by WHO (although if you join, it’s possible you will not be ushered into Downing Street immediately!).

Emerging evidence on the social impacts of Covid-19

Readers may well have their hands full, whether with work, care – or even baking. And you may feel that the most useful thing you can do is to keep doing what you are doing, to make sure that long-lasting and underlying issues continue to get attention. However, we will find it hard to avoid spending many of the coming years describing and analysing or being constrained by decisions made in 2020 and 2021.

Social science is less used to speedy and pre-review publication than physical science. However, fascinating and often worrying analysis is already emerging in the form of blogs and short papers, addressing the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown measures on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, women, different types of employee, self-employed people, people on low incomes, and multi-generational households. I’ve been looking at the role of housing in variations in case rates between areas. There is work on what the virus and emergency measures mean for social security, education, and housing affordability, and more emerging every day.

Covid-19 policy is social policy

From now on, whether in spite of or because of Dolan’s call, and whether anybody likes it or not, policy to deal with the Covid-19 crisis is going to be increasingly social policy and economic policy.

Social policy researchers, policymakers and practitioners have a lot to contribute – we know about different social groups and different areas, how the health, care, education and benefits systems work, about local government, employment, business and housing, the voluntary and community sectors, how people and institutions respond to change, how to assess policy choices, and what countries the UK can be usefully compared to for what… The SPA and the Academy of the Social Sciences are lobbying for openings in the policy process. We need to point out the costs and benefits of different options for lifting restrictions, to analyse the dramatic budgetary and fiscal choices ahead, and to select the best of the emergency innovations to sustain, to make the ‘new normal’ the most evidence-based – and the best – new normal it can be.

However, in focusing on policy, wondering about SAGE and trying to beat a path to Westminster to knock on the COBR door, we may be going along with some of the problems we are trying to solve. Covid-19 and some of the difficulties in response to date remind us that we have a very centralised system of government and policy making. However, we also have many local outbreaks of disease, a diverse population, four nations, and a health service, social care system and network of local authorities all with their own geographies. Covid-19 policy is going to have to be increasingly varied, at nation, city, local – and maybe even individual – level.

The virus also reminds us that policy made without very good understanding of practice means that university and business testing capacity can go underused, or that test centres can end up being inaccessible to some care workers. To be successful, Covid-19 ‘policy’ is going to have to be increasingly about getting practice right, not only in short-term logistics, but through planning funding, training and regulation, and by taking care of our key social policy institutions, which include local government, care providers and community groups, as well as the NHS.


Becky Tunstall is Prof Emerita of Housing Policy and past Director of the Centre of Housing Policy at the University of York. Twitter: @beckytunstall3