Life after lockdown: managing local variations

By Michael Burton | 23 June 2020

Policy makers and politicians face a tough challenge working out how to manage the aftermath of the coronavirus because of the sheer patchwork quilt of its impact says the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

While local control of the crisis including local lockdowns has been floated as a means of managing geographic variations in the scale of the virus the question is whether local authorities can manage the process and have they the necessary funding. And what happens about variations within a local authority area let alone between them?

The IFS, in its recent study The geography of the COVID-19 crisis in England points out that its ‘findings on the geography of the crisis suggest policymakers and politicians are in for a difficult time’ in deciding policy responses. Vulnerability to tackling the aftermath of the crisis is widely varied across local areas in the key three aspects of health, jobs and family vulnerability. The variation is not necessarily just on socio-economic grounds although the local authority areas most vulnerable do tend to be more deprived and with older populations than the average. Local areas in the highest quintile of death rates have experienced 2.4 times more deaths per 10,000 of the population than local areas in the lowest quintile. There is no simple North–South or urban–rural divide in the way that the COVID-19 crisis is affecting health, jobs and families across England. Areas whose residents are vulnerable on health grounds are not in general the same as those likely to be hit hardest by job losses. Areas with more children at particular risk, because they are poor or have been referred to children’s services, tend to be different again.

The research finds that the balance between protecting public health, enabling economic activity and minimising the social costs of isolation could look very different in different parts of England, and are often very different even in neighbouring local authorities.
Every area has been affected but in different ways and dealing with these multiple dimensions of the crisis will require localised policy responses that have hitherto not been attempted. The report adds: ‘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.’

The IFS study however does come to key conclusions based on the three key indices of vulnerability on health, jobs or family grounds. Like most countries, the highest number of cases and death rates have been in urban areas with high population densities, international connectivity and heavy usage of public transport. Some local authority areas, rural and urban, are more vulnerable than average on health and socio-economic grounds because of elderly populations, deprivation and reliance on tourism. They include seaside resorts like Blackpool and Torbay but also well-off rural areas like Dorset. Many coastal areas are notably vulnerable on both health and jobs grounds. 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 grounds: these include South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, which have relatively older, more deprived populations. Other such areas are 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 cases and deaths.

Key conclusions:

*Coastal areas are notably vulnerable to both health and economic impacts of the crisis.

*Areas in the Midlands and North of England are more vulnerable than average to health impacts and impacts on families and children including South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Other such areas are clustered in the West Midlands and in the cities of the North West and North East.

*Neighbouring local authority areas can have very different experiences of the crisis.

*While London has seen some of the highest rates so far, its younger population is less vulnerable to experiencing serious symptoms from the disease.

*The nine most vulnerable local authority areas on health, jobs and family grounds are Torbay, Isle of Wight, Blackpool, Northumberland, Dorset, Wirral, Gloucestershire, Bury and Lancashire

*There are 17 local authority areas with low vulnerability, Barking & Dagenham, Bexley, Bracknell Forest, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, South Gloucestershire, Stockport, Surrey, Trafford, Warwickshire, West Berkshire and Wokingham.

Time to relax borrowing rules

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