The COVID-19 crisis

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

Today is my eldest daughter’s 14th Birthday; one that she will spend, like millions of children, being home-schooled, but also apart from her grandparents, whom we are socially-distancing ourselves from in line with medical advice. I can’t recall a time like this in her young life or even my own – which is considerably longer – where the world has faced such an acute crisis as that caused by the COVID-19 virus.

One of Yorkshire’s most famous sons, Harold Wilson, once said that a “week is a long time in politics”, and this statement has never been as true as it is now. In a matter of days, we’ve seen the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget Statement superseded by two multi-billion-pound rescue packages designed to prevent the UK economy falling off a cliff. These unprecedented measures are welcome – especially the commitment by the government to pay up to 80% of employee salaries – but they may be the start of a series of interventions. Crucially, many businesses and households require cash now in order to survive. So, the government will also need to ensure that the financial system (especially the banking sector) demonstrates pro-active support, including greater forbearance, to those currently in desperate straits. The ties that bind together health and wellbeing and economic and social development have never been more evident.

If there is one salutary lesson from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08 and subsequent Great Recession, then it is the fact that an active state is needed more than ever during times of profound shock and when global societal challenges are on the rise. The capacity and capability of governments – at all spatial levels – is being convened and harnessed to tackle an immediate threat. And these institutions and others will become more essential if we are to build a genuinely sustainable economic, social and environmental future. Collectively, we will need to repair national, regional and local economies and communities. This episode should also stimulate the forging of a new consensus to place greater value on the foundational sectors of the economy where ‘key workers’, such as those in the front-line providing health and social care or in teaching or logistics, are keeping society functioning at the very time when we need it most.  

In Yorkshire, for universities, COVID-19 has meant switching almost overnight to online teaching and taking steps to further safeguard the health and wellbeing of staff and students. Reassurance is also being given to A-Level students due to start courses in September. Academic research is continuing, especially where there are safety concerns about halting practice or where research is linked directly to COVID-19. University medical schools, such as those in Hull-York, Leeds and Sheffield, alongside other medical training facilities in the region, have enhanced and accelerated their support to the health sector either by helping with testing or strengthening capacity within the NHS and public health bodies. The many acts of selflessness and commitment we are hearing about on a daily basis are truly astonishing and humbling.

Universities in Yorkshire are also instrumental in supporting thousands of international students in the region, with student unions in particular playing a key role. At a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, providing reassurance to students and their families is vital. Campuses have so far not closed fully, as many international students live in university or associated accommodation.

As anchor institutions and significant economic actors in their own right, universities in Yorkshire are also supporting businesses at this difficult time; signposting advice and guidance, especially on financial support, through existing business hubs, and working with national government, local authorities and other partners.  

In the medium term, as we move towards repairing our social fabric and local and regional economies and communities, universities, working collectively together and with public, private and voluntary sectors, will need to play an even stronger role as place-based, civic leaders. The fear is that the inequalities we know existed prior to the crisis will grow further as a consequence of COVID-19, and it will be the poor and the vulnerable who will suffer the most unless fundamental actions are taken to change how we and future generations live our lives.  

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