It has been a great privilege to chair the COVID-19 impact inquiry. When the inquiry began last autumn, it was still reasonable to expect that by the summer of 2021 we would be in a ‘post-pandemic’ phase. As the months have elapsed it has become clear that we will be living with the pandemic itself, as well as its consequences, for a long time to come. And while still not yet over, there are already some clear messages about the uneven impact it has had on different groups within society.

With many words already written about the pandemic, and so much more to come, we did not set out to tell the whole story of COVID-19’s impact and the measures to contain it. Instead, we have sought to draw together thinking across a variety of disciplines, to situate COVID-19 in the wider picture of health inequalities and to understand how this extreme experience may influence the journey towards greater equality.

In doing so we were hugely assisted by an Expert Advisory Panel, with expertise spanning research, civil society and public service. The panel’s broad understanding of the dimensions and determinants of health, across the nations and regions of the UK, was invaluable in challenging and enriching our discussions.

We were able to draw on research being written in real time as the pandemic moved from the first wave into its extended second wave. Some early impacts were partially reversed as restrictions ebbed and flowed. Others have become entrenched, often with uneven effects, with remote services proving more accessible for some while risking exacerbating problems of digital exclusion for others.

Our guiding principle was understanding how the UK’s experience of the pandemic could inform the decisions of a government committed to improving the health of its population, shining a light on the key issue of recovery.

The inquiry found that the shape of the UK’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the last major global shock, had a direct bearing on our experience of the pandemic. In turn, we can expect the nature of the recovery from the pandemic to shape our experience of the next global shock, whatever it may turn out to be. That makes it imperative to aim for a recovery that builds economic and social resilience, with ‘levelling up’ not limited to geographical areas of disadvantage but also addressing the needs of groups who have experienced the most damaging impacts of the pandemic.

The legacy of the pandemic is all around us in unmet health need, mental health problems, gaps in educational attainment, loss of employment and financial insecurity. If we are to avoid these becoming long-term scars, it’s time to confront our choices about how we value people. A recovery led by investment in people and communities – in health, housing, skills and education – along with a safety net to protect the most vulnerable, will pay dividends for the nation’s health and prosperity in the longer term.

Dame Clare Moriarty

Chair, COVID-19 impact inquiry Expert Advisory Panel