The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives have been wide-ranging. While some have been immediate and visible, others are emerging more gradually. Your contribution to our COVID-19 surveys has helped us understand how the crisis has affected people and what might make some more vulnerable than others to its effects. The evidence generated has been shared with government officials and with Parliament to help inform how the country responds to the pandemic.
In 2020-2021, we asked you to take part in three online surveys, so we could learn how COVID-19 has been affecting your work and finances, your health, your family and your social life. We also invited participants in four other cohort studies (born in 1946, 1958, 1989-90 and 2000-02) based at UCL (home to BCS70) to complete these surveys. This has enabled researchers to compare the effects of the pandemic on different generations.
Your contribution to the COVID-19 surveys has been invaluable. The information you provided about your experiences during the pandemic can be analysed alongside the information you’ve shared at different stages of your lives before the pandemic. This allows researchers to investigate changes and the factors behind them. By continuing to take part in BCS70, you will also help us to learn about the longer term consequences of the coronavirus crisis.
In October 2020, the UK government launched the COVID-19 National Core Studies programme, spearheaded by UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. This programme is a crucial part of the UK’s ongoing pandemic response and aims to use research to measure the near and long-term impact of COVID-19 across society. BCS70 is a part of this important research programme, along with other studies that follow different groups of people across the course of their lives. This is known as the Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing strand of the National Core Studies. This programme has highlighted some of the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and of lockdown on access to healthcare, on mental health, and on lifestyle and also identified which groups of people are more at risk of long COVID. These findings have been shared with ministers and with scientists advising government.
Here is some of the COVID-19 research that BCS70 has made possible.
Women and people with chronic illnesses were more likely to face cancellations of surgeries, medical procedures or medical appointments during lockdown, according to research based on the first COVID-19 survey in May 2020. The researchers also found that ethnic minorities and those suffering from chronic illnesses reported needing more care (healthcare at home and social care) than usual. This might be because of the pandemic’s impact on their income, mental health and community support. The researchers suggested that the disruptions caused by the lockdown have had far-reaching effects on health and wellbeing in the UK, and may have widened pre-existing health inequalities. They called on government to implement public health measures to better meet the needs of at-risk groups in the event of another lockdown.
Mental health in the UK has considerably worsened throughout the pandemic, according to research based on information from nearly 55,000 participants across 11 studies, including BCS70. This is true for all age groups and genders, but the pandemic’s effect on mental health has been particularly marked for women, those with a degree-level education, and younger adults (aged 25-44). Thanks to information you provided in previous surveys and during the pandemic, researchers were able to analyse the immediate and continuing effects of the crisis on mental health. They found that mental health deteriorated in the first lockdown but did not get better when restrictions were loosened. They called on the government to provide greater access to mental health support.
Researchers found that young people were more likely than other generations to report positive changes to their lifestyle during the first national lockdown. The researchers analysed data collected from participants in five cohort studies, including BCS70, who all completed our first COVID-19 survey. Participants, aged between 19 and 74), answered questions about different health-impacting behaviours and whether habits had changed in lockdown, compared to the month before the coronavirus outbreak. This included how many hours of sleep they were getting, how much exercise they were doing, how many portions of fruit and vegetables they were eating, and how much alcohol they were drinking. The researchers found that the youngest generation in the survey (those aged 19) were more likely to report increases in sleep, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake, and lower alcohol consumption, compared to those in other age groups.
Across all generations, women had a higher risk than men of atypical sleep levels during lockdown (less than six hours or more than nine hours per night). There was also evidence of the pandemic widening health inequalities, with people from ethnic minority groups being more likely to report atypical levels of sleep, lower levels of exercise and lower fruit and vegetable intake during lockdown.
A study has found that study participants whose living arrangements had changed during lockdown were more likely to report increased stress, especially BCS70 study members and those born in 1958. In the first COVID-19 survey, around one in six participants across four generations reported a change in the people they were living with, most frequently due to children moving back to the parental home. The proportion varied across generations, with over a quarter of nineteen-year-olds reporting a change (most often moving back to their parents’ home), compared to 14% of BCS70 members (who often mentioned at least one child moving back in). The researchers found that nearly 2 in 5 study members across all four generations reported increased stress, with those who had mentioned a change in living arrangements most likely to say this, especially among BS70 members and those born in 1958. Thanks to the information you and participants in other studies have provided, policymakers will now get a clearer sense of one of the less visible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a much bigger impact on women’s employment than on men’s, according to research based on the third COVID-19 survey. Women, and especially those living with a partner and children, were more likely to lose their jobs or be put on furlough than men. This remained true even when taking into account the fact that women were over-represented in the jobs most affected by the pandemic. The researchers noted that this was most likely due to social norms – the expectation that looking after children and housework is women’s responsibility and they are better suited to it than men – and discrimination, with employers forcing women to take up furlough at higher rates than men. The researchers warned that this might lead to a reinforcement of gender inequalities, or even a reversal of the progress towards gender equality, and have urged the government to provide greater support to women.
Researchers analysing data from BCS70 and other similar studies found that furlough seemed to protect participants from the negative health effects of unemployment. In March 2020, the UK government launched the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, also known as ‘furlough’. This provided employees unable to work due to the pandemic with 80% of pay, capped at £2,500 per month. Previous studies have shown that unemployment can lead to an unhealthier lifestyle, and can also have adverse effects on mental health. This study found that the furlough scheme helped to mitigate those effects. Those who were on furlough tended to eat as healthily and sleep as much as employed people, and even exercised more than them. Compared to those who remained working, furloughed workers were at greater risk of mental distress, low life satisfaction and loneliness, but they still fared much better on these counts than unemployed people.
Find out more about this research:
– The UK Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and changes in diet, physical activity and sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from eight longitudinal studies
– Association of COVID-19 employment disruption with mental and social wellbeing: evidence from nine UK longitudinal studies
Although scientists worldwide now have a better understanding of COVID-19, and have discovered vaccines, tests and treatments to combat its spread, long COVID remains a bit more elusive. The UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, home to BCS70, took part in a major research project funded by the UK government to help tackle long COVID. Longitudinal studies like BCS70, which follow people throughout their lives, are especially well placed to discover what might make some people more vulnerable to long COVID than others, and to help scientists pinpoint specific risk factors. One study based on data from BCS70 and nine other similar studies found that women, middle-aged people and people with asthma were more likely to develop long COVID, as well as people with poor physical or mental health.
Here are some other interesting COVID-19 findings you might like to read:
– COVID-19 survey helps researchers understand mental health, employment and parenting during lockdown
– Findings from first COVID-19 survey: trust in government, and in others, during the lockdown in May 2020
– In your own words: How the coronavirus outbreak has affected you
– People with prior mental health problems hit harder by pandemic disruptions
– Find out more about what the National Core Studies programme has found in this short video: