It is 2020, the year of perfect vision and clear sight ahead.
For several years ACRE, like many rural organisations, has been asking for a UK Rural Strategy, for better rural proofing, for Government to show some evidence, however small, that it even recognises that rural people exist. Two august House of Lords Committees have asked the same. Perhaps we have all been looking down the wrong end of the telescope? Maybe we should have been asking for urban proofing instead. And then waited for the penny to drop!
Just two weeks ago, on 20th March, in order to squeeze the life out of the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK Government made the difficult decision to close down much of society. It did so on the basis of strong evidence that this was the only course of action open to it. The modelling and the research that lay behind this decision was highly authoritative and based on previous experience of the transmission of viruses of this type. This was coupled with international research on how ‘social mixing’ happens in western societies, and therefore what needed to be done in the way of ‘social distancing’ to reduce the rate of transmission. This was predicted to slow the spread of the disease to something that could be managed. Clearly these were the right decisions, if, perhaps, taken a little late.
Since then the modelling has been commendably accurate, especially if viewed for the whole UK population. But this is an average for the whole country and conceals dramatic differences in different parts of the UK. The rate at which the illness spread in London and the Midlands has been fast, the rate in the more rural regions of the UK, much slower. We are still, of course, in early April, and experiencing the results of transmission that occurred prior to ‘lockdown’.
The statisticians and epidemiologists behind the model have stated that population density makes little difference to the spread of an illness of this kind. This is because transmission takes place in homes, schools and workplaces and, irrespective of the distances involved, these are considered to be similar everywhere. Population density may not be a significant factor, but clearly there is something causing a major difference in this particular outbreak.
The epicentre of the crisis is probably not the best time to speculate on what this difference might be, but a marker must be put down for the future. The impact of other social policy in the UK may be causing an assumption that ‘social mixing’ in rural areas is much the same as in major urban ones, but this could be a long way from the truth.
Would the national strategy have been different if, from an early stage, the modelling that lay behind it had been more sensitive to different geographies within the UK.?. Perhaps this would have made it possible to tailor the strategy to deal with differences that are now becoming obvious? Could we have planned, earlier, for a faster rate of increase in London and the Midlands with all that this would have entailed? And a slower one in rural areas, perhaps giving scope for a longer period of contact tracing whilst this was still possible. By thinking only about the average national picture we may have lost the scope for detailed planning in both.
2020 hindsight is very easy and even more pointless. Unless, of course, lessons are learned as a result. It is not too late to apply some genuine spatial, urban/rural, thought to the process by which the national strategy for dealing with Coronavirus moves through its next phases and into an exit from ‘lockdown’. Could the modelling allow us to anticipate that rural areas may reach the peak of infection just as urban centres are coming down the other side? Or even that the social distancing measures mean rural areas will never rise to the same peak?
We have to plan for the recovery of the economy as quickly as possible whilst also learning that our economy can be better than before – especially as regards climate change; and it may be that rural areas can lead the way in this. Above all, we need to learn lessons about the impact of failing to rural proof social policy and the results of over-centralised decision making.
we need to learn lessons about the impact of failing to rural proof social policy and the results of over-centralised decision making.
Jeremy Leggett ACRE
ACRE have worked with other like-minded organisations to write to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matthew Hancock. To read the letter click the link below.