COVID-19: how has the pandemic affected the National Outcomes?

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In December 2020, the Scottish Government, together with COSLA, published Scotland’s Wellbeing: The Impact of COVID-19, which:

“aims to report openly and transparently on how COVID-19 has affected progress towards Scotland’s National Outcomes.” 

This blog provides some background information on the National Outcomes and the National Performance Framework (NPF), and a brief summary of the new report, referred to as the “COVID-19 wellbeing report”. 

Although much of the information in the report is obviously well known and has been prominent in the public debate for some time, the report draws a wide range of sources together into one place, and gathers the information around the main areas of the National Outcomes.

This makes it potentially a useful tool for committees in their forthcoming scrutiny of the Government’s spending plans for 2021-22 and the Government’s wider response to the pandemic.  The final section of this blog provides some areas that committees could look to explore.

The NPF and the National Outcomes

As part of the 2007 Spending Review, the Scottish Government introduced a new outcomes-based NPF to underpin the delivery of its agenda.

Following the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, the Scottish Government is required to review its National Outcomes every five years. During the first review in 2018, the Government also took the opportunity to change the structure of the NPF and implement a series of other changes. More information about the refreshed NPF and how it could be used in budget scrutiny can be found in this 2019 SPICe Briefing.

The revised NPF has a detailed website, which includes information on how the NPF works, the outcomes, measuring progress and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

The NPF in a pandemic

However, a quick look at the indicator performance pages shows that most of the indicators are subject to lengthy data lags.  While a few indicators have 2020 data, most only go up to 2018 or 2019.  In addition, although launched in 2018, 13 of the 81 indicators are still marked as either “performance to be confirmed” or “indicator in development.”

This means (as acknowledged up front in the new report) that the information in the NPF at present does not reflect the impact of COVID-19 on the National Outcomes.  This is one of the primary drivers for the COVID-19 wellbeing report, which draws on additional data sources to describe the impact of the pandemic across the National Outcomes.  In addition to this, it also provides some analysis of what the impact might be in the future. 

However, it will be important, once data becomes available, that clear lines are made between pre- and post-pandemic performance.  If not, it will be difficult to strip out whether performance changes are due to the impact of the pandemic and associated policy responses, or were already in train before then. 

Overall impact of COVID-19 on the National Outcomes

The report concludes by noting that COVID-19 will have a significant impact on all National Outcomes and in some cases, progress will have been “deeply set back.” The report notes that, unsurprisingly, “the impacts will be largely negative”, but that:

“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.”

The report also includes a chapter examining inequalities across the National Outcomes.  It makes clear that:

“The impacts of the pandemic have been, and are likely to continue to be, borne unequally.  Unequal outcomes between different groups already existed pre-COVID, and the effects of the pandemic have worsened this.”

Also mentioned in the report is the Government’s “four harms” approach, where the Government “monitors and publishes evidence on the direct heath, indirect health, economic, and social impacts.”  The four harms data dashboard is also a useful tool in tracking the impact of the pandemic.

Impact of COVID-19 on specific areas


In terms of the health-related outcomes, unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 wellbeing report states that the pandemic “has had a profound negative effect on physical and mental health through both direct and indirect means.”  However, as the pandemic is still ongoing, and indeed has changed significantly since the report was published, much of the detail around these impacts is not certain. 

Health is also strongly interlinked with almost all other areas – for example a deterioration in health may affect the ability to maintain employment, and poorer mental health might increase feelings of isolation.  The Health chapter of the COVID-19 wellbeing report sets out a range of information on direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic.

Economy, Fair Work & Business, Culture

The huge impact of the pandemic on the economy in Scotland (and worldwide) has been widely covered in the Parliament and elsewhere.  The Economy, Fair Work & Business, Culture chapter of the COVID-19 wellbeing report sets out the headline figures – the economy contracted by 19.4% in the second quarter of 2020 and GDP remained 7.6% below its pre-COVID level.

The report further notes that the recovery is fragile and the path to recovery is still highly uncertain.  In terms of employment, again things are uncertain, and are highly dependent on the interventions in place, like the UK furlough scheme.  This is also an area where the report identifies wide-ranging unequal impacts.

Different sectors of the economy have obviously been affected differently.  The report identifies tourism, hospitality and culture, entertainment and recreational businesses as the worst affected. Issues here could also lead to an increase in inequity in who participates in cultural activities. 

The report does not appear to reference the concept of a “green recovery” which was prominent in the 2020-21 Programme for Government, and has been covered in-depth by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.  

Communities, Poverty, Human Rights

Linked to the economy outcomes, the Communities, Poverty, Human Rights chaptersets out that there is widespread concern among lower income households across Scotland about their financial situation in the pandemic.  This is linked to job losses, reduced hours and increases in personal debt.  All of these factors are seen as having the potential to worsen.  The report also states that some rights (for example access to high quality public services or rights to privacy) may have been negatively affected by the crisis.  But it also states that:

“public perception of the coronavirus response in Scotland has been positive and communities have felt more empowered in some respects.”

Children, Education

The Children and Education chapter starts with some positives – in the early years, rates of immunisations and health visits have remained high.  And, there is some suggestion lockdown might have had some positive impacts for some children and young people. But overall “most research indicates a generally negative impact, particularly among 12 to 14 year old girls.”

After the period of school closures and the cancellation of exams, the report acknowledges that “children and young people are now re-entering education with ground to catch up on” and that there are “widespread concerns about lasting negative impacts on educational attainment for more disadvantaged students.” 

Linked to this, the report states that “potential of widespread unemployment and a squeeze on household incomes are likely to close down higher education options for young people from poorer households.”

Environment, International

The final subject chapter focuses on environmental and international issues.  As would be expected, the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have led to short term changes in behaviour that have a positive environmental impact (a large reduction in flights for example).  But the evidence indicates that these changes were not driven by concerns about the environment, rather they were the knock-on impact of the restrictions.  Whether these changes are maintained is noted as being “highly uncertain”. 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are only mentioned briefly in this chapter and not in other areas of the report.

Issues for budget scrutiny

Under the new budget process, the bulk of subject committee activity has already taken place, as the focus is on the pre-budget period.  However, most committees will likely take evidence from Cabinet Secretaries on their portfolios once the Budget is published on 28 January 2021, and potentially from other affected bodies as well.  Some of the issues that committees could look to explore are set out below:

  • The Government’s intentions for the next review of the national outcomes, currently scheduled for 2023.
  • Whether in light of the pandemic the Government intends to review any of the statistical measures for performance (or indeed develop new measures) in the national indicator set.
  • Progress on developing the 13 indicators still marked as either “performance to be confirmed” or “indicator in development.”
  • The impact of the information in this new report on the Government’s budget proposals for 2021-22, and beyond in the Medium-term Financial Strategy.
  • The extent to which the impact of COVID-19 can be isolated within the national outcomes and national indicators; and plans to report on performance pre- and post-pandemic.
  • The forecast impact of COVID-19 on national wellbeing in the future.
  • How COVID-19 has affected progress towards meeting the UN SDGs.

Allan Campbell, Head of Research and Financial Scrutiny