How was the pandemic for you? It is a difficult question to ask and possibly even more difficult to answer. The group of people living in Scotland that we followed from July 2020 to July 2021 had both positive and negative experiences during a year of going in and out of lockdown.

That was the background to the Just Festival inviting me to reflect on what positives we can take from a global pandemic with Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director of Healthcare Quality and Strategy in the Scottish Government, and Derek Mitchell, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Scotland. Our panel discussion ‘Covid Positive: Can there be any upside to the pandemic?’ was moderated by Professor Liz Grant, Director of the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh.

Home working

One of the most obvious changes from the pandemic is the increase in working from home. Our business travel survey showed that nearly three in four organisations in Scotland either already support home working or plan to do so in the future. This is a significant uplift from over 60 per cent of employers having most of their staff based at an office or workplace before the pandemic.

Working from home sets in train a range of changes, including how much time we spend commuting, how managers coordinate their teams, how colleagues connect, and what we have for lunch. The emissions from heating our homes go up and from commuting to the office go down, according to a study we commissioned.

Keeping habits

Amongst our study participants there was an appetite for a number of the changes to daily lives brought on by the pandemic to be sustained, particularly using the car less, shopping locally, reducing waste and cooking from scratch.

However, a lack of infrastructure, services, knowledge and skills made many unsure they would manage to maintain those habits. Then there is the cost, for instance of shopping locally – an issue that has come into even sharper focus with the current cost of living crisis.

Community and communication

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has widened the narrative around climate change to highlight that collective action and change are possible, our research has shown. What’s more, in recovering from the pandemic, there is the opportunity to further tackle climate change.

This sense of community as a possible positive to build on as we tackle the big challenges of our time, was also highlighted by both my fellow panellists.

Another interesting aspect is the impact the pandemic has had on public debate and the role of science in informing that debate. During the pandemic we had scientists on the airwaves and on our screens every day. They gave meaning to new terminology and helped us pick our way through complex data. Will this have a lasting impact on how we discuss complex challenges like climate change and the role of research in informing our public debate?

Did we find an upside to the pandemic? Not really. But we have learned from the experience, not least how connected and dependent on each other we are locally, nationally and globally.

Featured projects

Net zero behaviours in the recovery from Covid-19

Covid-19, travel behaviours and business recovery in Scotland

Emissions impact of home working in Scotland

Communicating on climate change after Covid-19

Related links

Will a “new normal” after Covid-19 offer fresh hope for the climate crisis?

Building back better: A net-zero emissions recovery

Just Festival