Fortunately, the distressing health and infection difficulties that we have been grappling with during the COVID crisis 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, with GDP likely to have fallen by 20% in the latest quarter, and a number of important commercial sectors are facing severe long term damage unless the economy is opened up soon.
Long term damage to the economy is being mirrored in the education sector where young people from deprived backgrounds are missing out on education. These teenagers are likely to be seriously disadvantaged unless a return to full time education is initiated from September. Not only will educational inequality increase within Wales but it will also increase between Wales and England. This would mean that from next year, Welsh school children would be at an increasing disadvantage when competing against their peer groups in England for university places and ultimately for jobs.
These problems are interlinked and tend to reinforce each other – if children are not in full-time education then their parents cannot easily return to work. This is likely to reinforce the problems associated with deprivation and undermine the economic recovery of local economies. The focus should be on getting people back to work quickly.
The Wales COVID Communication Group seeks to address these issues by establishing a vehicle for regular communication between the business, education and science sectors to identify a way for the Welsh Government to open up the economy and keep it open.
To achieve these aims, the Group is putting forward the following viewpoints for wider discussion by stakeholders in Wales:
To respond effectively to the virus we need to be clear on “what” our goal is and “how” we plan to respond. Is the goal to eliminate the virus? Or slow the spread? Or protect those who are most vulnerable? To build a productive path forward we need effective leadership to agree on the “what” and then we need a national campaign to empower and encourage decentralised contributions to the “how”. Only with clear direction, will we be able to track if we are doing a good job.
We can all agree that a data-driven, evidence-based approach is the right way forward. So we must be disciplined about tracking infections and death rates as well as mental health issues, poverty rates and unemployment. And we need to encourage this data-driven approach at the national level as well as in individual businesses and across the education sector.
We must keep learning about the virus and tracking what is working or not working from other countries. However, responding to the COVID crisis should be seen as an opportunity to promote new ways of doing things in Wales, supporting new industries and focusing on strategic initiatives which will make a real difference rather than simply propping up lame ducks.
This applies in the health sector as well as the wider economy – the NHS has done a great job in reorganising facilities at the hospital level and has successfully introduced a ‘rapid response mode’ of operation. We must learn from this and not waste the opportunity to use this experience to reform the way our health system is run. The rapid progress achieved in the last few months must now be focused on solving the longstanding problems in the sector.
Likewise in education – schools, Universities and colleges have responded reasonably quickly by moving towards greater use of remote delivery vehicles. But it has not happened everywhere. Investment in digital infrastructure will be needed to allow this to become the norm – ensuring that everyone has access to the internet and enough bandwidth to make full use of the new opportunities for remote learning and working. Better connectivity will be important to promote Wales as an attractive home-working and family friendly lifestyle hub for young couples.
Other investment in green infrastructure will offer important opportunities to build back better. This should include improved signage and expanded connectivity for cycle ways and footpaths – especially where major gaps currently exist. e.g. the Wales coastal path has long and unattractive detours inland and onto roads which should be rectified. In addition, green energy offers huge opportunities such as investment in the hydrogen economy and the harnessing of the renewable energy opportunities provided by the Severn Estuary in the south and Dee and Conwy in the north.
Prospects for new approaches to be developed in industry offer further openings for emerging stronger from the pandemic. We need to work with Welsh companies to harness the new opportunities that are springing up within the new norms – the current difficult operating environment could be in place for two years or more. (A vaccine could take at least 12 months to develop and even then it may take an additional 12 months to work through the supply chain.) In the meantime we need to empower and encourage the many successful businesses in Wales to adapt and flourish in this new setting and become leaders within the new norm. To succeed we are going to need a national campaign focused on “opportunity”.
A first step could be to encourage people in the public and education sectors, as well as business leaders, to feel an important part of this fight to beat COVID-19. Part of this challenge will be to assess how we can encourage decentralised responsibility for fighting the pandemic and ensuring we respond effectively to further attacks. For this to happen the public will have to develop a much better understanding of ‘relative risk’. Being more aware of risk factors will be fundamental to the successful reopening of the education, leisure and arts sectors. The Government can improve matters by introducing initiatives which both improve morale and increase confidence.
Of the many sectors affected by COVID-19, the creative and cultural sectors are arguably going to be the worst hit. This is because a great deal of their work relies upon large numbers of people congregating together in a shared experience. Theatre and opera will be difficult to stage and the appetite for audiences to congregate again (while the virus is still out there) is difficult to assess. There is likely to be a very slow return to normality until a vaccine exists. Hence, while the £59million offered by the Treasury to help support the Welsh cultural sectors is welcome, the underlying problems will require much longer term solutions.
Part of the response to reopen the economy and build back better could involve a more focused strategy for inward investment – aimed at attracting international research institutions focused on virus control and testing alongside manufacturing companies engaged in vaccination research and production of vaccines. This will not be easy, but many of these companies will be looking to expand their operations in the near future and Wales has the science base required to support these organisations.
The virology of COVID-19
COVID-19 is the disease caused by infection from the RNA SARA-Cov2- coronavirus. It is extremely contagious, but very few children or adults under 40 will die from it or even suffer major symptoms, unless they have an underlying major medical problem. The strategy must focus particularly on how to protect those over 60, who are at high risk. Currently, too much emphasis is being placed on modelling and not enough on the virology.
We must work with UK and international virology experts, particularly those who have researched coronaviruses, to advise the medical profession and Government. It is important to rollout the PCR test that converts RNA to DNA as widely as possible. However, virtually all NHS, University and Biomedical Research labs use this standard technique, and have the equipment. Typically it only takes a few hours to complete. We must exploit this resource. An array of testing centres should be established throughout Wales using existing NHS and University facilities, so that, like clinical blood tests, both positives and negatives are known within 24 hours. At present results take 3 days or more to be available.
Biochemistry and microbiology labs in hospitals are trained to deal regularly with ineffective material. Medical schools and Pharmacy departments should be incentivised to encourage research staff to develop research programmes to investigate potential anti-viral medicines. The discovery of the effects of dexamethasone are encouraging. A fully effective vaccine is unlikely to be available soon. The central problem is that it is difficult to produce a vaccine that mimics sufficiently the normal way the virus infects.
However, if the health sector, the universities and business sectors are to be energised to respond effectively to further attacks, it will require an objective assessment of how the authorities (and the public) have performed during this outbreak. This is not to imply that the Welsh government has performed poorly. Welsh procurement for PPE, the testing of care home staff and the introduction of track and trace have all been a bit better in Wales than in England.
But waiting two years or more for the results of a UK-wide public inquiry is not an option. In responding to the COVID crisis in Wales, speed is going to be of the essence. A more limited inquiry should be speedily initiated here in Wales and concluded (possibly) before the end of 2020, so that the lessons learned can be implemented before any further winter spike in the virus.
The COVID Communication Group will be asking the Welsh Government to commission such an inquiry using an independent team that would include academia (scientists and virologists), business, education and local government. Both local and central government need to be involved – it has been suggested that some of the mistakes that have been made in England may be down to over-centralised decision-making. What is not clear is whether the differences between relative death tolls in the UK nations are down to good fortune, demographic differences, devolution or better decisions.
Hopefully the evidence from the inquiry will help us address some of these issues and encourage the government to move from “generic” solutions, such as lockdown, to more “targeted” and localised approaches. But to do this we have to have the capacity to respond quickly and that means investment in testing.
That brings us to a crucial question:– why haven’t we been able to deliver a better system of tracing and testing, and why was so much capacity in the universities and the private sector “underutilised”? If we cannot effectively address this issue and fail to provide adequate testing and tracing capacity then the risk is that the government’s response to future local outbreaks will inevitably be more “generic” than “targeted”.
It is interesting that the legal challenge to the lockdown in the UK emphasises some of these points: “the Government has continued to apply blanket restrictions to everyone, despite the clear evidence as to the minimal risk it poses to the majority of the population. The risks to many (particularly children) remain tiny when set against the hugely costly and disruptive lockdown measures.”
However, the aim of the COVID Group is not to challenge or blame government. Over the next few months the Group will seek to identify best practice in order to answer some of these important questions:
The overarching aim of the Wales COVID Group is to establish a non-party study group that works with the Welsh Government, business, science, education, local government and other stakeholders in order to create a sound base of information for addressing these issues and the fulfilment of the aim to open up the Welsh economy, Welsh schools and Universities, and the overwhelmed cultural sectors and keep them open.
Professors Anthony Campbell and Brian Morgan
School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Cardiff University
School of Management, Cardiff Metropolitan University
On behalf of the Wales COVID Communication Group (WCCG)
WCCG is an independent advisory and research group – with around 20 members drawn from the education and business sectors. We are looking to influence government policy over the next twelve months to achieve better outcomes by developing a broadly based, evidence driven approach to investigating COVID-19.