Scotland's recovery from COVID-19: learning

This report was developed with the Covid-19 Learning & Evaluation Oversight Group. It synthesises evidence from evaluations of Covid-19 interventions and workshops with senior leaders held over summer 2023. The findings reflect work being progressed as part of wider public service reform activity.

1. Executive summary

1.1 Background

In November 2021 the Deputy First Minister agreed to convene a COVID-19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group to inform Scotland's recovery from COVID-19. The group is Chaired by Professor Linda Bauld, Chief Social Policy Adviser and includes several Scottish Government Directors and senior partners from a wide range of public, third sector and research organisations.

This executive summary draws out a small number of overarching conclusions based on a thematic analysis of Scottish Government evaluations of COVID-19 interventions, expert reviews funded by the COVID-19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group[1], and additional reports relevant to Covid recovery. It also incorporates evidence from four workshops held between late August and early September 2023 with around 50 senior officials and stakeholders to develop policy and practice implications to support organisational learning from Scotland's approach to the pandemic.

1.2 Context

The effects of COVID-19 continue to be felt by individuals, communities and organisations. The legacy of the pandemic has been further compounded by the cost of living crisis. The effects of these concurrent crises continue to be disproportionately experienced by those who are already most disadvantaged. Learning from this period in Scotland's history is particularly important as public services continue to adapt and evolve to meet new political, social, technological, economic and fiscal challenges.

The emergence of COVID-19 served to create the conditions that led to a unique period of experimentation in the design and delivery of public services. Not everything went well and the COVID-19 Inquiries will examine a number specific areas where lessons need to be learned. However, across the cross-cutting themes, identified from the evaluation of COVID-19 interventions, there were a number of examples of positive or promising practice that emerged.

This output complements and reinforces the recommendations of the Social Renewal Advisory Board Report [2], the Citizens Assembly [3] and the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. [4] Cutting across this work there were also frequent references to the recommendations of the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. [5]

1.3 Key points

  • There is a need to systematically collect better evidence on how policies are experienced by disadvantaged and marginalised groups. This will involve developing a better understanding of the take up of services, how the take up of services relates to need, the reasons why particular groups have low levels of take up and what can be done to facilitate higher rates of take up amongst certain groups.
  • There is evidence to suggest that some COVID-19 interventions may have widened pre-existing inequalities. A small number of evaluations examined how experiences varied on the basis of equality characteristics, social economic disadvantage and geography. These evaluations found lower levels of take up, greater barriers to access and disproportionately negative effects on more disadvantaged groups.
  • Public trust should be seen as central to Scotland's national resilience and future pandemic preparedness. Evaluations of COVID-19 interventions found that level ofthe public trust in organisations has a direct bearing on the effectiveness of policies. Furthermore, a lack of trust amongst disadvantaged groups can widen pre-existing inequalities.
  • Trust between organisations is critical in supporting effective policy delivery. Where there were high levels of pre-existing trust between organisations, policy responses were able to be developed and delivered at pace. The academic literature suggests that public trust takes time to build but can be quickly diminished.
  • The emergence of COVID-19 resulted in a clarity of purpose on a small shared set of outcomes across sectors. There was a sense amongst workshop participants that post-Covid organisational objectives had become more diffuse and that the sense of urgency apparent during the pandemic isn't being applied to acute but longer term 'emergencies'.
  • COVID-19 demonstrated the potential for public and third sector services to adapt their practices and respond with speed and flexibility. Evaluation evidence illustrated that the urgent response was facilitated by a reduction in red tape, more flexibility, relaxed GDPR protocols, devolved decision-making, expanded crisis funding, a higher 'risk appetite' and more collaborative working.
  • In some cases, collaborative partnerships forged during the pandemic have led to lasting changes in attitudes and relationships. Evaluation evidence suggests COVID-19 led to stronger recognition and appreciation of the value of local knowledge and understanding and the importance of this in directing resources to those most in need.
  • The pandemic response demonstrates the value of more flexible approaches to funding. The greater autonomy provided to local and third sector organisations to flexibility use funding enabled 'local leaders to utilise the resources as required to meet outcomes that mattered'.
  • One of the most important 'silver linings' emerging from the pandemic was the huge leap in the use of digital technology across sectors. The speed and flexibility with which numerous face-to-face services pivoted in order to provide remote support, demonstrates what can be achieved in crisis conditions, often with long term benefits. However, further work is required to address digital exclusion.
  • It is important to consider the risks of inaction (alongside the risks of action). During the pandemic, Local Authorities, community partnerships and voluntary organisations were given greater autonomy to take risks to implement solutions to support individuals and communities. The higher risk tolerance that existed during the pandemic is being replaced by a return to risk aversion and concern about lines of accountability.

1.4 Key opportunities

Workshop attendees were asked to identify key strategic opportunities over the next two years to embed learning from evaluations of COVID-19 interventions. The following opportunities were identified:

  • The Verity House Agreement [6] was seen as an opportunity to agree shared outcomes, provide greater autonomy, build trust and drive forward public service reform. The agreement refers directly to the themes of collaboration, partnership, trust, data, accountability and human rights and recognises the importance of local action and knowledge. Questions were raised at the workshops about how the Agreement could best be operationalised.
  • The National Performance Framework refresh was seen as an opportunity to re-affirm a commitment to shared outcomes and re-focus priorities on longer term more preventative outcomes.
  • The Scottish Leaders Forum, with its focus on collective leadership, was identified as a key forum for applying the findings from COVID-19 evaluations.
  • A number of Bills scheduled to be introduced over the course of this Parliamentary term were seen as opportunities to embed learning from COVID-19 evaluations. This included the Promise Bill, the National Care Service Bill, the Human Rights Bill and the Wellbeing and Future Generations Bill.
  • Finally, the Scottish Budget 2024/25 and future budgets were seen as key strategic opportunities to re-focus public services on prevention and take bold decisions on dis-investment.



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