UCL Policy Lab


How they helped: learning from the community response to COVID-19

20 November 2023

The COVID enquiry has brought into sharp focus a time many had sought to forget. An understandable human response to a traumatic period. Yet for Ordinary Hope member, Piali Das Gupta, the need for us all to learn lessons from that period remains.


The following article is part of the Ordinary Hope project. To find out more about the project and to get the latest news and events, sign up for the UCL Policy Lab newsletter here

The process of forgetting, allowing the memory of a traumatic event to fade, is a profoundly human response to pain, an attempt to heal and give space for hope. This is certainly true for the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if there is something important to salvage from the memory - something that can be a source of hope, for now and in the future? 

While the media focus has been on political fallout and Whitehall's response, for Piali Das Gupta, the pandemic highlighted the challenge of our current system and the untapped ability of our communities to respond to challenges. 

Like most people, I felt like the pandemic, especially the lockdowns, turned my life upside down. But, professionally, I also felt really energised as I got a glimpse of what it will take to tackle our most enduring challenges. I held a national role that enabled me to work with local places across the country on their Covid-19 responses. Seeing how local partners worked together to support their communities was incredibly inspiring. There are valuable lessons we should hold on to.  

Three observations have particularly stuck with me:

Sometimes we need to follow the lead of local partners. The UK is a highly-centralised country generally and the pandemic response was no exception. But what that meant in practice was that the central government was deciding where to put local testing sites with little understanding of who was actually getting infected. For example, we started off with a lot of drive-through test sites in areas where many residents, especially those most at risk of infection, don’t own cars. With great persistence, local partners persuaded the national team to let them create test sites people could walk to, for example, local churches and mosques or sporting facilities. Just as important, these were places that felt less intimidating to residents, which increased their willingness to go in. 

We as local public sector partners also had to acknowledge that our “hyper-local” partners often understood our communities and enjoyed more trust with residents than we did. The community champions networks that emerged were absolutely vital to getting accurate information out and gathering intelligence that enabled us to adapt our local responses. We’ve since built on those relationships with people and groups who are regarded as natural leaders in their communities in tackling the cost of living crisis in our areas. 

When it comes to drawing on local insight and relationships to achieve net zero, we have a much longer way to go. Even the best-designed and funded retrofit programme could only work if people are willing to open their doors and trust that any work being done to their homes will leave them better off. It won’t be fancy websites or pamphlets that win hearts and minds; the pandemic gave us a lot better insight about what and who could.

We are better off when we prioritise outcomes over organisations. One example came early in the pandemic, when shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) were rife. As it was unclear when national supplies would be available, many areas set about trying to acquire their own. When it came to distributing PPE, they didn’t necessarily do it on the basis of who paid for the stock, but which workers were most at risk. So it could have been a council paying for PPE but offering it to NHS or VCS employees that had to keep doing face-to-face jobs. 

A minor example, perhaps, but revolutionary compared to how we’re encouraged to behave in the public sector. We work within a system that encourages us to compete with each other for resources and look after only our own bottom lines. It’s encouraging to see examples like the London Anchor Institutions Network, where major organisations like the NHS, universities and councils are using their purchasing power not to seek the cheapest deal but to generate benefits for the local communities, such as supporting local businesses and creating jobs for local residents.

We need to play to our strengths. Too often, the local and national government compete for territory, not out of malicious intentions and maybe even because we have positive intentions to show leadership. But that can mean that we overlook the role that others have to play and I certainly observed that during the pandemic. Working simultaneously at national and local level, I could see that everyone was motivated by the same goals of trying to save lives and return to normality, but it was well into the pandemic response before it felt like we genuinely built a relationship of mutual trust and respect. For councils, it was frustrating that data on who was getting infected or tested wasn’t being shared, when they knew they had more effective channels to reach residents. For the national team, it was hard to balance a lot of competing demands and voices when everyone was working at a frantic pace.

But even in that context, local and national government brought distinct strengths to the mix that ultimately made a difference. Central government’s ability to procure at scale and under-write the development of multiple vaccines is something no local partner could do. But supplies alone were only part of the equation - it also took local knowledge, facilities and relationships to actually get people tested and vaccinated. For those of us in government, central or local, we also learned to make space for residents and communities to lead and put resources in their hands to deliver most effectively.

My personal hope is that we build on the lessons from the pandemic, to help us tackle other challenges like the climate emergency and child poverty. 

We may understandably want to forget the pandemic, it was a time of loss and isolation for many. Yet if we’re to overcome the challenges we face today, a bit of remembering might go a long way. 

Afterall, we sometimes find hope in the darkest of places.

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