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Path from the Pandemic: Two years on

Change is still needed for a better post-pandemic future

Two years ago, the public was told to “stay at home” as cases of Covid-19 spiralled. As people grappled with the enormity of the pandemic, hope also emerged that once it passed, a new path would be carved—both in terms of preparedness for a future health crisis and in the creation of a more equitable society. This was as true for those in research as anywhere. So, with the UK entering a phase of what government terms “living with Covid-19”, how well-founded was that hope?

When it comes to preparedness, there are major roadblocks, as we explore. The most pressing is over the ability to respond quickly to any new Covid variant of concern, with the government’s decision to scrap free testing sparking heavy criticism. 

While there have been major successes in some aspects of the UK’s Covid response—namely, vaccine development and deployment—the government has been chaotic in others. Alarmingly, it is still failing to set a strategic course for future health crises.

It has dialled down the urgency over creating vaccine manufacturing capacity, and its agenda for universities—heavily dominated by issues such as free speech on campus and graduate outcomes—misses the mark when it comes to the sector’s overall health, and the health of its research capacity.

There have been, however, ripples of positive change in the research sector itself. UK Research and Innovation is planning to develop funding schemes that could be used in future crises, having struggled to quickly allocate bespoke funding for Covid-19 research at the pandemic’s start. The pandemic has also cemented the coming end of UKRI’s woefully outdated JeS grant management system, deemed unfit for purpose in responding to the crisis.

The rapid switch to carrying out teaching and research activity online initially accelerated change that had long been on the cards, with numerous benefits for flexible working and the environment. But on the flip side, digital inequalities were deeply exposed. 

The same is true for inequalities in general. The pandemic shone a glaring light on the deep-rooted structural challenges faced by numerous groups under-represented in research: those from a Black or minority ethnic background, women and those with caring responsibilities. The clamour for change is louder than ever, but commitments to address these problems need to be followed by sustained, meaningful action. The real worry is that this all slips down the agenda amid a return to ‘normality’.

Already, momentum to address the climate emergency seems to have largely been decoupled from the pandemic mentality: the COP 26 summit in Glasgow was far from the turning point that some had hoped for in the early days of Covid-19, when plane-free skies and quiet roads briefly caused a mood of reflection.

With the latest concerning variant, Omicron, not yet six months old, it is too early to say what the new normal will turn out to be. It is still being shaped, including by those in research. At Research Fortnight we will continue to highlight the sector’s work on addressing today’s challenges through our Path from the Pandemic campaign. The drive for change must not be allowed to vanish.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight