The New Normal: For Better Or For Worse?
The world around us is changing. A “new normal” is emerging driven by the coronavirus pandemic. For most people, many of the changes that they are forced to deal with are challenging and bring little joy now or in prospect. In many ways and for many people, the “new normal” is something to fear. A few are fortunate in that much of what is happening now, and will likely happen in the future, will be somewhat less challenging for them. However, some of the things that will help define the ‘new normal’ will be the sensible and necessary. Things that have been discussed for several years but somehow the times and system were never right for them to be implemented. Arguably, in the UK, the way that our National Health System functions, at the local (primary care) level, provides one such example.
Until the pandemic and lockdown, appointments with a doctor or nurse were usually made by telephone or by a visit to the surgery. Such appointments were often for a week or so later and entailed a wait in the surgery in the presence of others who were also unwell. Much of the short consultation that followed was based on questions and answers and often resulted in the writing of a prescription. The prescription was then taken to the local pharmacist who dealt with it usually within three days. It was collected and taken home. As a result of the pandemic most of this protracted process, by necessity, has been replaced by telephone appointments and consultations, prescriptions passed directly to the local pharmacist, and in many cases delivered to the person’s door. The increased use of the internet may streamline the process further and further increase either or both of the number of consultations on offer and the length of consultations. Undoubtedly, these changes will reduce the risk to patients, doctors, nurses and other primary care staff.
In terms of research, the pandemic has forced a number of important changes in focus and in methods, and in the translation of findings into both policy and practices. At the same time, the mood of politics has moved dramatically from the ‘do not trust experts’ message of the Brexit debate to “ we are led by science and by scientific advice’ of the war against Covid-19.
In terms of the nitty-gritty of research, real world issues have taken centre stage and with this move the concept of ‘fit for purpose’ methods has gained traction with the necessary recognition that perfection might actually be Voltaire’s enemy of the good. That remains to be seen in context and with hindsight. The value placed on Big Data has grown as have the challenges and short comings of driving everything by data sets that are not disaggregated by context. Both are advances but in different ways. Finally, the speed with which research findings are put into play through changes in policy and practices has increased substantially. In doing so, it has highlighted that much of the ‘usual’ delay in implementation has been unnecessarily bureaucratic in nature.
It is interesting that some, well established and well-funded universities have benefitted from these developments and particularly in the health and life sciences and in medical and technological research. At the same time, partnerships, previously frowned upon, between universities, commercial research centres and manufacturing concerns have demonstrated their real value to the country.
All these things are for the good and hopefully will define the ‘new normal’ and make life better and safer in some respects at least.
As a final comment, retrenchment and austerity are not necessarily the answers to the current crisis and should not define the ‘new normality’ in the University sector. Innovation, investment and confidence also offer a way forward and it is the responsibility of senior leaders in those institutions to understand this and act bravely upon it. Many sadly are not up to this task and a Darwinian scenario of the ‘survival of the fittest’ will most probably and sadly define the future for their sector.