The impact of Covid-19 in Buckinghamshire

Public health teams in every council have had a busy year. They take onboard ever-changing guidance from central government and apply it to their uneven local situations. It’s not an easy time for them. Thankfully, sound evidence is supporting their decisions. We’ve provided some of this vital evidence to Buckinghamshire Council, important to share as we start a second national lockdown.

We’ve interviewed scores of organisations, community and faith groups and local residents to find out how they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, what support they’ve accessed and what they need in future. These were groups not always heard in research, including Travellers, Asian families, food banks and those with mental health problems. We interviewed people in late July and early August 2020.

An anxious time
Anxiety appeared in almost every single interview. People were understandably anxious about the deadly disease. It’s a “symptomless virus that can attach at any time, whatever you do,” one community group organiser said.  We also heard worries about leaving home, such as those shielding but also children. One woman’s son has asthma and was worried about going outside, for example.

People spoke about other mental health concerns too. Depression was pretty common. One resident said they were “treading water rather than moving forward”. Others spoke about being “lower than normal”. Thankfully, talking to others – whether a pastor calling his congregation or a mental health peer support Zoom session – have partly helped to deal with this.

Varied impact
We purposely targeted certain groups in society, people that often don’t take part in research or public consultations. And even though some of our sample sizes were small, it’s clear that some people have been affected by the pandemic more than other groups.

Different BAME communities, ages and family makeup all have a bearing. For example, families with children were finding it hard during the initial lockdown. Home-schooling is much harder if your English isn’t great (first-generation Asian parents) or you’re spending £30 a week on data to access online classes (a Traveller mum). One centre manager said the “biggest barrier is language” for their Asian advice centre users.

People’s employment was another important factor. We heard about many Asian taxi drivers. During the initial lockdown there was no work for them. When society started going out again, fewer jumped into taxis. And if you do get a ride, taxi drivers are then more exposed to the disease. Elsewhere, a freelancer lost three jobs at the start of lockdown, leading her eventually to the local food bank. Another woman had bought a house just before lockdown and feared she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage.

Existing infrastructure
One real positive to emerge was how quickly support was mobilised, often at a very local level and adapting so quickly. The Winslow Big Society was praised, for example, reaching out to groups like the local Lions and Rotary Club, as well as businesses and local charities. They had a champion, somebody to turn to, on every street.

In other towns and villages, existing groups started picking up shopping and delivering prescriptions. Churches and mosques rang around their members or jama'ah. A mental health service turned to telephone and video counselling within days. Charities spoke about the “a huge wave of people wanting to help”, particularly those furloughed but wanting to put something back into their communities and to help those in need.

Families spending more time together was another positive, including with nightly walks and bike rides. One dad spent time with his son gardening or doing DIY, something they never had time to do before. One woman, working from home in Buckinghamshire instead of central London as before, said she worked “harder, longer hours but better”, saving four hours of travel each day and able to spend time in her local community instead of a crowded train.

Future needs
The residents and organisations we spoke to over the summer recognised the need for more support.
Since mental health worries were notable during interviews, it’s not surprising that future help with anxiety came out strongly. Support for Covid sufferers too – at that stage before people were even talking about ‘long Covid’ – and for those who had been bereaved or gone through trauma.

Getting people out of the house was key for some groups, because people’s confidence “will have been zapped”, one manager said. This included those working with older people, to overcome anxiety of leaving home but also to keep people moving and therefore physically active. Getting out, past the front door, is important in dealing with some mental health conditions too.

While these are headlines from just one research project in one part of England, I’m sure many of the findings will be repeated elsewhere. Fortunately, Buckinghamshire Council are already using the insight to help plan for the months ahead.

If you would like any further information about the proejct, please contact Research Director Adam Knight-Markiegi.