As the UK starts to recover from the first COVID-19 wave, hoping to be the last, the pandemic has brought deep economic and lifestyle changes to many citizens, with reverberations that might last for years to come. The way people work, commute, shop and socialise has drastically changed in such a short time span, and many adaptations were required in an effort to curb the number of infections in the country. According to the ONS, 46.6% of British workers worked from home from April 2020 onwards, and 86% of them did so as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, only one in ten people in the UK stated to still be planning a holiday abroad this year, and instead relying on ‘staycations’.
The battle is far from over and the fear of a second wave still remains. However, many governments are keen to avoid a second lockdown, as they cannot afford its economic cost. Technology applied in the public and private sector will be key for adapting spaces to make them safer and allow people to return to them. A digitally-enabled transformation of our public surroundings may be the only viable path to some kind of normality, and to an economic recovery.
Moving services to digital when possible
The adaptation of places may also mean moving certain public services to the online environment when possible, with in-person interactions only taking place when they are essential. In March 2020, a project rolled out by Essex, Kent and Suffolk councils aimed to bridge the gap between care workers and vulnerable citizens in their areas through video-conferencing. The councils have procured 5,000 units of a closed-system tablet devices helping social care workers to monitor residents in need.
The example of Essex, Kent and Suffolk councils should be analysed closely by other local authorities in Britain which are still in need of a technology push to cope with the increase in care services’ demand. Furthermore, it is a clear example of a technology-driven change to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on local public services.
Re-thinking points of contact on physical space
In the longer term and if the pandemic continues to be an issue, the new normal could mean a decline in interfaces requiring direct touch, and an accelerated uptake of other interfaces like voice and video. The higher hygiene requirements in public spaces after each user may push companies and public buildings to invest in moving beyond touch and button interfaces. Technologies such as voice recognition software, touch-less gesture-based interfaces, Ultrasonic Data Transmission and mobile apps may be the new preferred alternatives for the interactions with citizens at elevators, train stations, and citizen services such as Jobcentres and hospitals.
Some examples of these innovative approaches to places are already being seen around the world, and could serve as benchmarks for the UK public sector to procure post-pandemic alternatives. In May 2020, Abu Dhabi airport installed 53 touchless elevators within its premises in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The elevators use the Touchless Keypad Technology (TCHK), and allow passengers to use it without pressing any buttons, and instead just wave their hands in front of a holographic panel to indicate the desired direction.
Better contact tracing approaches
With a higher number of people leaving their homes and social distancing measures relaxing in the UK, stronger contact tracing capabilities may play a major role in controlling the number of infections. Despite UK lack of success in launching an effective contact tracing app in June 2020, the use of technology for rapidly identifying interactions between infected people is still on the table, but will need to work in tandem with physical testing and robust track/trace of new cases.
Furthermore, interoperability between tracking systems (for example, this could include Border Force arrivals database and NHS testing databases). More investment in analytics and quicker COVID-19 tests could bring the extra layer of security for Britons who are slowly going back to the streets.
The country still has a long way to go before the crisis is over, and the pandemic will continue to impact on public and private ICT investment. However, the COVID-19 crisis is bound to accelerate the digital transformation within the public sector, benefiting public services beyond the pandemic. New technologies procured by the public sector during the pandemic, if proven to be effective, may have a positive impact on the future of public services in the UK—triggering innovation, improving efficiency, and broadening the reach of new modes of service delivery across the public sector.