1. Introduction
  2. Health
  3. Economy, Fair Work and Business, Culture
  4. Communities, Poverty, Human Rights
  5. Children, Education
  6. Environment, International
  7. Unequal impacts across the National Outcomes


What COVID-19 may mean for Scotland’s Wellbeing in the Future



The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our health, economy and society, with damaging impacts on the way of life and wellbeing of people in Scotland. Progress towards the National Outcomes is tracked through a set of National Indicators, but the necessary delay between data collection and publication means they do not yet reflect the unfolding impacts of COVID-19.

This report aims to report openly and transparently on how COVID-19 has affected progress towards Scotland’s National Outcomes. It brings together a range of more timely evidence sources, as well as analysis and insight, to show the impact of COVID-19 across the National Outcomes to date and its potential future impacts. Understanding the breadth of impacts should aid a range of organisations and individuals who are considering how to reset progress towards the national outcomes in light of the pandemic.

Impact on National Outcomes

The evidence presented in this report shows that the pandemic is likely to have significant and wide-ranging impacts, right across the National Outcomes.  These impacts will be largely negative, but there are differences across the outcomes in terms of the direction of the changes, the depth and severity of impacts, the level of certainty over the effects and the timeframe over which they may occur.  There is considerable uncertainty about long term impacts at present, as the pandemic and response continues to evolve.  How these unfold will depend on a number of factors, including the progress of the pandemic and the measures put in place to control it, how businesses, public services, communities and individuals respond to the changes, the policy choices that are made, and changes in the external environment.

A key finding is that the impacts of the pandemic have been, and are likely to continue to be, borne unequally.  Unequal outcomes between different groups existed pre-COVID, and the effects of the pandemic have only worsened this. It has produced disproportionate impacts across a range of outcomes for a number of groups, including households on low incomes or in poverty, low-paid workers, children and young people, older people, disabled people, minority ethnic groups and women.  Overlap between these groups mean that impacts may be magnified for some people.  The weight of evidence suggests that the pandemic may widen inequalities in income and wealth over the medium term, as well as being likely to make unequal outcomes more severe in a range of other areas.

The evidence to date suggests that health, economy, fair work and business and culture outcomes have been deeply negatively affected so far, and when the labour market impacts fully emerge, this is likely to also have a negative impact on the poverty outcome.  Education and children outcomes are also likely to be impacted negatively, but the evidence on the scale of the impact so far is limited and these impacts are likely to take longer to emerge.  The picture is more mixed for communities, human rights, environment and international outcomes. Each has been impacted in both positive and negative ways, with the eventual impacts currently less clear and, in some cases, with limited data to draw upon at present.


The impacts on health are profound and include the direct impacts of the virus itself, indirect impacts through reduced access to care, and the health impacts of the response measures.  There have been upwards of 6,000 deaths registered where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, with the oldest age groups most affected.  Those with certain underlying health conditions, men, those in the most deprived areas, some minority ethnic groups and disabled people are also at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

“Excess deaths”, which also takes account of indirect health impacts, stood at 4,306 over the year to September 2020. Many health services were paused during lockdown, which is likely to impact negatively on health inequalities in the future.  Mental health has also been negatively impacted, by anxiety about the pandemic and potential risk to individuals, as well as from the social restrictions.  The delivery of health and care services has also been profoundly altered – including an increased use of remote consultations, with the potential to transform care experiences in the future.

Economy, Fair Work and Business, Culture

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deepest and fastest economic contraction on record, with the Scottish economy contracting by 19.4% between April to June 2020 – its biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record. The size of this contraction is not surprising given that large parts of the economy were required to close during lockdown in order to protect lives.  Business activity strengthened over the summer of 2020 but there are signs that the pace of recovery has slowed in the autumn of 2020 amid continued heightened uncertainty, subdued demand and the introduction of local restrictions. There is a risk of a further contraction in economic output in the final quarter of 2020. The economic recovery is therefore expected to be gradual and is fragile, with economic activity at risk from ongoing and future restrictions, resulting in considerable uncertainty.  The economic recovery is, at present, “K-shaped”, with some sectors of the economy recovering relatively quickly and other sectors, particularly those that were impacted more in the initial lockdown, struggling to recover. Business resilience remains a concern, with some businesses having weak cashflow and facing the risk of insolvency.  

While the labour market impacts, in terms of unemployment, have not yet come through in official statistics, in part due to the job retention scheme, there is likely to be an increase in unemployment over time as support schemes unwind. It is likely that this will be borne unevenly, primarily affecting younger and older workers, women, ethnic minorities and people in low-paid jobs. Longer term, the increase in remote working seen during lockdown could lay the foundations for more enduring changes, but the scale and speed of this is highly uncertain. There could be wide ranging impacts on labour market participation, on regional and city centre economies, on travel and transport and on housing.

The pandemic has had significant negative impacts on tourism, hospitality and culture, entertainment and recreation businesses.  This includes workforces in the entertainment and creative industries, and on cultural participation and attendance.  Physical audiences are not likely to return to pre-COVID levels in the medium term, due ongoing restrictions coupled with potential safety concerns. While there has been a turn to online cultural activity, few people anticipate paying for online cultural activities in the future. Many businesses in the sector are struggling and some are expected to close permanently.  This may increase inequalities among those who participate in cultural, entertainment and recreation activities.

Communities, Poverty and Human Rights

Households in Scotland are already feeling the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of job loss and earnings reductions.  This was reflected in a drop in household incomes, UK-wide, of 4.5% this year when compared to last. This average figure masks variations, with higher falls in earnings among lower income households (although increases in benefit levels gave some protection) and increases in debt.  Conversely, for those on high incomes, household budgets were often strengthened during lockdown, because of a reduction in spend which more than offset any loss of income. The balance of evidence suggests that income inequality will widen in the future, while planned changes to UK-wide benefits in April 2021 are predicted to increase the numbers of people in relative poverty.

There has been a mixed picture of impacts on communities and human rights outcomes.  Social connections in neighbourhoods and communities have been disrupted and an increase in isolation and loneliness has been seen. Some groups of people have reported reduced access to support and services during lockdown, particularly disabled people. There has been reported increases in hate crimes, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation, though caution needs to be applied before attributing all the changes seen in these to the pandemic.  Access to justice has also been impacted by backlogs in the courts.

However, there is evidence of positive impacts on community cohesion and empowerment – seen in examples of strong community spirit, informal support, volunteering and organising.  The overwhelming level of need also catalysed new ways of working among service providers and prompted the emergence of innovative and person-centred support, for example, for rough sleepers, for Gypsy/Traveller communities and for the shielding and at risk populations.

Children, Education

Children and young people missed out on education during lockdown and are re-entering education with ground to catch up.  There are widespread concerns about negative impacts on future attainment for more disadvantaged students, who saw less educational input during lockdown.  This could potentially slow the previous progress made on reducing the attainment gap. Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results this year in National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher were high but are not directly comparable with previous years due to the change in approach to certification.  The number of applicants securing places at Scottish universities through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) was also up this year. However, in future years a squeeze on household incomes could close down higher education options for young people from poorer households, while the shift to online provision will reconfigure the higher and further education offer, with as yet unclear impacts for equality of access.

It is feared that the personal and social development of children may also have been impacted by a period out of education, and that the closure of early learning and childcare (ELC) facilities could have long term consequences for children who were in their early years in 2020.  Parents have reported problems such as poorer sleep, mood, behaviour, activity levels, eating behaviour and mental wellbeing for younger children, while 11 to 25-year-olds reported concern about the impact on their social relationships with family or friends.  More positively, there have also been reports of some families growing closer during lockdown, but it is likely that experiences vary widely.  Particular difficulties around loneliness and isolation have been reported among care experienced young people and young carers.

Environment, International

The steep contraction in economic activity during lockdown resulted in improvements in some environmental measures (such as some measures of air quality and early estimates of greenhouse gas emissions) and travel patterns also changed.  However, some of these changes may prove to be temporary. The pandemic has also had harmful environmental impacts, such as increased use of plastics and packaging materials, reduced environmental monitoring and enforcement and delays to domestic and international negotiations and actions on climate.  The future shape of travel and transport (an important source of greenhouse gas emissions) is also currently unclear and dependent on the evolution of the pandemic, the societal response, and whether any positive changes in behaviour around low carbon travel are maintained.  In the longer term, a shift towards remote working and digital service delivery may reduce the need for some travel. Around half of people expect that they will spend more time visiting outdoors for recreation after lockdown, though it remains to be seen whether this behaviour change is realised.

COVID-19 has reduced all types of international travel, including for work, study, for business and for tourism, meaning that fewer people will be coming to Scotland from overseas in the short term.  It is unclear to what extent there will be any longer lasting impacts on international travel.  Any potential long term impacts on Scotland’s cultural industries and higher education institutions could also have negative impacts on international visitor numbers.

Trust in the Scottish Government has remained relatively high through the pandemic  and the UK has seen an increase in international reputational perception ranking in 2020.  While COVID-19 has impacted on the ability, in the short term, to collect data that is used for decision making, performance assessment and scrutiny, it has also underscored the value of responsive evidence and new sources of data and analysis have emerged.

What might this mean for Scotland’s National Outcomes in the future?

The evidence presented suggests that COVID-19 has had, and is likely to continue to have, significant impacts across all of Scotland’s National Outcomes.  Progress across the NPF has been hindered and in some cases deeply set back.  However, the depth and longevity of these impacts varies across the outcomes, and how the impacts play out in the future will depend on a number of factors including the progress of the pandemic and the measures put in place to control its spread; the response of businesses, public services, communities and individuals; other changes in the external environment, such as EU exit; and the policy choices that are made by governments in response.

The key medium term impacts are likely to be seen on health, economy, fair work and business, education and poverty outcomes. These are all closely related impacts, with interacting effects across these outcomes and others. In addition there are a number of cross-cutting impacts, some of which are much more uncertain, that could have wide ranging effects across the NPF in the medium term.  These include an entrenchment of existing inequalities and a potential for new inequalities to emerge; an acceleration of trends towards digitisation and automation; potential changes to Scotland’s international profile and outlook; an increase in uncertainty and the need for enhanced resilience to future shocks; and potential shifts in relationships and responsibilities between governments, the third sector and communities.

Each of these has the potential to alter the likelihood of realising the National Outcomes for everyone in Scotland and enhancing overall wellbeing.  The direction  these changes will take are not yet visible and an understanding of COVID-19 impacts on the NPF over the longer term will be essential to support everyone in Scotland to re-set progress towards these outcomes.

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