The economic impact of COVID in the UK depended on where you live

Shutterstock/ 3DJustincase

Julie MacLeavy, Professor of Economic Geography, University of Bristol
David Manley, Professor of Human Geography, University of Bristol
Jamie Evans, Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol; and
Katie Cross, Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol

COVID brought rapid and lasting economic change around the world. But in the UK, the level of impact depended on where you lived when the virus arrived.

Our research shows that the economic difficulties experienced during periods of social restrictions were particularly stark for those in deprived neighbourhoods.

During the first national lockdown, for example, we found that 23% of people in the most deprived parts of the UK were unable to afford day-to-day expenses or to save for the future. Food bank usage was reported at 9%. In the least deprived places, those figures were 6% and 0.5% respectively.

The impact on employment followed a similar pattern, with 10% of workers from the most deprived areas experiencing a job loss in the early months of the pandemic, compared with only 4% in the least deprived areas. Overall, the people who live in the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods fell further behind through the pandemic.

This corresponds with previous data that lays bare how being poor limits a person’s ability to cope with – and recover from – abrupt changes in economic conditions. Mostly, this stems from a lack of capacity to soak up financial shocks (having savings, for example) and from the nature of state welfare provision.

With COVID, the sudden restrictions placed on the labour market, alongside an absence of childcare, placed many in uncharted waters. Among them, single-parent households were much more likely to have experienced job loss or a reduction in working hours.

A report by the independent Women’s Budget Group found that the socio-economic effects of COVID were particularly severe for women with disabilities, women from minority ethnic groups, and women of migrant status. Again, this underlines how the pandemic exposed and amplified existing vulnerabilities.

In terms of emergency support, the temporary universal credit increase (which provided an additional £20 a week to the standard allowance) helped to reduce overall inequality. And the furlough scheme (plus similar support for the self-employed) reached many in potential difficulty – but not all.

Brought in to prevent potential mass unemployment and pay workers a replacement wage, these policies excluded many in the most precarious positions, including an estimated three million on zero-hour contracts, agency workers and the newly self-employed.

But those eligible for employment support were not immune from difficulty. About one-third of the 11.2 million workers furloughed saw their income fall below the official low-pay threshold. A further 6% ended up behind with their bills as a result of large income falls, high expenses and low savings.

Filling the gaps in state support were family, friends and community groups, many of which were set up in direct response to the pandemic. Informal transfers of money from these sources were common for those on the lowest incomes, regardless of where they lived.

Continued risk

This highlights a failure of state support to fully mitigate the effects of COVID restrictions for those facing financial, food and housing insecurity. Despite the government spending over £70 billion on emergency financial assistance, a combination of insufficient payments and problems of access left many reliant on informal forms of support. In addition, there is evidence that the stigma surrounding benefits put a lot of people off applying for help, even when they really needed it.

Our analysis found that working-age adults were more likely to have received financial support from family or friends (8%) than apply for universal credit (4%). We also found that this kind of reliance was more likely among those who had been furloughed than those who had continued working through the pandemic, and even more widespread for those who had lost their job, suggesting that the furlough scheme, while not perfect, was better than mass job losses.

High street without shoppers.
Empty streets in Sheffield, UK, April 2020. (Shutterstock/Kristin Greenwood)

Today, while the worst effects of COVID seem to be behind us, the risks of job losses, business failures and debt defaults remain. In the UK, recession is expected, inflation is high, and energy bills are soaring. Of particular concern are those for whom the pandemic has increased their financial vulnerability. They are not well placed to weather this coming crisis.

Rather than scale back state financial support, the government needs to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable are protected. In doing so, they would guard against the scarring effects of unemployment and debt.

There is also a role for targeted regional investment. The financial impacts of the pandemic were most keenly experienced by those in places with long histories of deeply entrenched disadvantage. Without help, the hardship and insecurity wrought by the pandemic risks becoming ingrained, and with it, the geographical concentration of poverty that our analysis has uncovered.The Conversation

Julie MacLeavy, Professor of Economic Geography, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol
David Manley, Professor of Human Geography, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol
Jamie Evans, Senior Research Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol; and
Katie Cross, Senior Research Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From research to practice: My outreach experience in Africa

By Cynthia L. Fonta, Final year Doctorate candidate, School for Policy Studies

Volunteering and outreach activities

I volunteered in a research institution in a community in Burkina Faso prior to joining the School for Policy Studies as a postgraduate research student. It was a lonely four hours’ drive to that community from the city. The roads were terribly dusty during the dry season and flooded in the wet seasons. We had to pass several flooded bridges in the wet season – a risky crossing. Just getting there was a nightmare but then, you tend to forget all agitations and worries once you have arrived. It was a natural and untouched environment with clean air and wonderful people. I fell in love with the villagers with their friendly and generous nature.

What struck me the most was how forgotten they were by the development plans and projects. I could see in their eyes the unspoken truth of suffering and poverty. Water was not clean; sanitation was in the bushes and no households who could afford even unimproved pit toilets.  I thought to myself, how can something as basic as this be a luxury? How can there be campaigns to increase Vitamin A uptake, mass deworming programs, hand washing sensitisation campaigns without the most basic key to life, clean water services? These are all good strategies, but in my opinion, they must be integrated with the most important needs of the community.

I suddenly had the urge and motivation to go back to school to enhance my research skills and influence policy. I had no financial means to help, I had no voice to speak and the only way I could have a voice was through research. So, my journey to Bristol began. I met my current supervisor, Professor Gordon, whose work had so much inspired me to understand child poverty and how it was measured. The rest was history. The very idea that I realised my dreams to study policy in health-related research is itself a blessing I never take for granted. My stipends from the University of Bristol studentship helped me adjust to student life and take care of my cost-of living expenses. A small part of it was saved every month because I promised myself to do something someday to help an impoverished community.


I went back home for the summer break to be with my kids while working remotely from home, Yaounde, Cameroon. It was my first time living in that community in Yaounde. Early on, I noticed children walking down the hill with buckets to fetch water. Their ages ranged from as small as four years to adults.  I decided to drill a bore hole for the community with some funds put aside from my stipend. Notice the little boy fetching water into the container for drinking in the photo on the right-hand side above? The water has been tested and it is odourless, colourless, free of chemicals and microbes. I thank the University of Bristol and the Bristol Poverty Institute for granting such an opportunity to make a difference in this small way.

Blog author Cynthia L. Fonta

I also had the opportunity to meet a lovely group of persons with special needs at the Centre des Handicapés (special needs centre) at Etoug-Ebe in Yaounde Cameroon during same period. This meeting took place during a three-day symposium organised by the deputy director of the Centre (centred with the white face cap in the photo below), Mr Douglas Achingale. I was invited by one of the guest speakers.

Members of the Centre des Handicapés, including Deputy Director Mr Douglas Achingale (with white cap)

The participants came from all provinces across the country to discuss their challenges and difficulties of navigating their limitations in such resource poor settings. They were educated about their rights as included in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), followed by a series of entertainment activities.

The director owns an NGO Sports on Wheels Association whose main purpose is to promote sporting activities among people with special needs. They are known throughout the country for organising country wide basketball tournaments, table tennis tournaments, weightlifting and other indoor activities for persons with special needs to uplift their spirits and keep them healthy. It was really impressive.

My research and future interests

My research focuses on child poverty and deprivation in decent living standard (clean water, adequate sanitation, access to health and adequate diet, quality housing, access to education and information) across African states and the implications of poverty on child mental health states. Child poverty is examined in the context of postcolonial economic and administrative dependency structures linked to persistent unequal distribution of poverty and under-development in the continent. African states are categorised into two groups, Anglophone Africa, governed under indirect ruling structures set up by English colonists, and Francophone African states which ruled under centralised or direct ruling polices set up by French colonists. The overall aim of the study is to determine which group produced worse child poverty outcomes and inequality distribution to direct policy priorities. Here, large secondary data from varied sources are harmonized over different survey years to produce robust poverty and inequality estimates.

The School for Policy Studies and my supervisors, Professor David Gordon and Dr Zoi Toumpakari, have guided my epistemic way of thinking to critically theorise, conceptualise and hypothesise innovations and ideas to provide the best evidence for policy. They exposed me to managing large data sets, multidimensional poverty estimations, inequality calculations and multilevel regression analysis. I intend to carry on with these skills by conducting research in vulnerable groups anywhere in the world. I have done some work on elderly wellbeing, currently doing some work on children in poverty and hopefully in the future, work with persons with special needs or maternal wellbeing. I intend to use these skills to shine a light on impoverished and vulnerable groups in the society through community research and implementation activities.

Advice to policy students

My advice to policy students is to follow their passion, be innovative in thinking and remain in constant touch with supervisors who will guide and harness your thoughts, innovations, and productivity. Present your work in conferences and research groups to gain feedback for improvements. Volunteer as much in research institutions or programs because it opens one’s mind to relevant problems and areas on which to focus. Take advantage of every conference or program you attend to grow your research network and request to volunteer in any program that might be of your interest. Your supervisors are your guide to this lonely and challenging path to obtaining a PhD. It gets challenging as the workload increases over the years, but it takes dedication, commitment and focus to keep going, following the directions of your supervisors every step of the way.

Volunteering and outreach institutional contacts

Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Contact- Jean-Noël Poda (

Centre National de Réhabilitation des Personnes Handicapées, Yaoundé, Cameroon
Contact- Mr Douglas Achingale (