Two years later

Two years on from the UK’s first national lockdown, Wednesday was a time to remember all those lost to the pandemic – and continue to reflect on lessons we need to learn from COVID-19.

It is also a time to thank fellow Bristolians for all they have done to heed public health advice and help keep one another safe during the pandemic. Together, we have doubtless saved the lives of many citizens of our city.

With remaining national restrictions continuing to lift, Bristol has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. From getting the added protection offered by vaccines to choosing to wear masks in crowded spaces, we can all keep protecting each other.

To mark the anniversary, and share best practice from our city, I represented Bristol in a panel discussion with the International Public Policy Observatory: The pandemic two years on: what have we learned, and are we better-placed to deal with future crises?

We know that stemming the spread of the virus itself, has had impacts across society: from education to loneliness, mental health to domestic violence, unemployment to hunger. These impacts cluster around poverty and inequality. As I set out in my 2020 State of the City address, this means we have faced, and still face, a syndemic – not a pandemic.

And on Thursday I spoke at the Annual Public Health Conference, hosted by the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Public Health, focusing on the impact of climate change on the wider determinants of health. I shared more about the impact of climate change on public health, noting the increase in recent years of emerging diseases like COVID-19. Deforestation, global temperature rises, and habitat destruction have all contributed, and Stanford University research has found that the geographical spread of infectious diseases through mosquitos and other insects is likely.

There are important lessons to be learnt about the way we’ve all responded in the past two years. I hope the government’s inquiry is an honest assessment and looks widely and the unintended consequences of decisions. I share the concerns expressed in a letter to The Times newspaper signed by 50 experts including Russell Viner, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and Andrew James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has expressed concerns about the draft terms of reference for the government’s inquiry because they made no specific mention of children or young people except for a single reference to school attendance.

More widely, lessons from the pandemic can also help us tackle the climate and ecological emergencies, but it will ultimately come down to finance. As the vaccine roll-out and initial support schemes, the national government can support people. We have already invested locally in insulation, to reduce energy bills, carbon emissions, and the ill health felt by those who have been forced to choose eating over heating. As a result, council homes are twice as likely to be in the top energy performance bands as the rest of the city’s homes, and we have committed £500 million more.

With a £10 billion bill to decarbonise Bristol and become a Net Zero city, and all the benefits that brings in terms of active travel, locally grown food, and much more, we need further investment from both national government and the private sector to make it happen.