Life in the New Normal

What could be the new normal of healthcare, education and transport?
26 May 2020
Presented by Katie Haylor, Chris Smith
Production by Katie Haylor.


image of phrase lockdown in Scrabble tiles


This week, we're asking what will the "new normal" look like? We delve into the future of healthcare, education and transport. Plus in the news, loss of smell is added to the list of coronavirus symptoms, but why has it taken so long? And how safe is it for schools to reopen?

In this episode

A man's nose.

00:51 - Anosmia now on the Covid-19 symptom list

Anosmia has recently been added to the UK's list of coronavirus symptoms to self-isolate with...

Anosmia now on the Covid-19 symptom list
Tim Spector, KCL; Carl Philpott, UEA

The UK government recently added anosmia - the loss of the sense of smell - to the list of symptoms that people infected with coronavirus might develop, qualifying them for testing. And it turns out that losing your sense of smell is a much more powerful predictor of coronavirus infection than having a fever, previously the leading criterion: Over 60% of people develop anosmia, and in sixteen percent of people, it's the only symptom they show. This has emerged thanks to a free phone application called the "Covid Symptom Study App" launched by Kings College London researcher Tim Spector, and it seems his figures from over 3 million users have finally provoked the government into action…

Tim - We're currently picking up 17 symptoms and we're adding to them on a nearly weekly basis as people report them back to us. When this virus was first reported, they were just cough and fever, and until recently that was still the NHS Public Health England advice. We noticed pretty soon after launching on the 24th of March that many people were reporting a lack of smell and taste and they were telling us there was nowhere on the app. So we quickly added it to the app and within about a week we had enough cases that we knew this wasn't just made up. And over the next few weeks did some analysis to show that in a subset that were having swab testing, this was about the best predictor you could have of a positive viral swab test. It was actually better than fever or cough. And so we put a paper online about it. We told the government about it six weeks ago, and these extra symptoms that aren't just like flu should be taken more seriously.

Chris - How many people have you got signed up to the app now?

Tim - We have 3.25 million have actually entered their details on the app and about 1.5 million who are logging every single day.

Chris - How does it work then? They download the app and then what information does it solicit from them and how frequently?

Tim - They download the app and you basically you have to fill in a few personal details. You give your postcode, you're asked a few health details and then you're asked whether today you're feeling well or not. If you say you're feeling well, that's it. You finish. If you say you're not feeling well, you get a drop down menu of 17 potential symptoms at the moment and you log those. As people, if they've been logging they're healthy for a while and they get ill, many of them are being sent a swab test and from that we're working out what the best combination of symptoms are that match a positive test.

Chris - Why did it take the government so long, do you think, from the time that they were made aware that there was this association before it's finally formally admitted to the case definition of "if you've got this symptom, you might have coronavirus"?

Tim - It's a very good question. I can only speculate. The key thing as I've mentioned is that at least 17 other countries have several weeks before include it in their list, and France did this about six, seven weeks ago. The excuse the deputy chief medical officer gave to the press was that it had a very small effect. Therefore they didn't think it was worth confusing the public with. Our data disagree with that by a factor of 10. They said it only affected 2%, our data show, it's closer to 16, 17%.

Chris - So what fraction of people have loss of sense of smell and taste then, as a proportion of all cases of coronavirus infection?

Tim - Of the people who tested positive, it's around 60%.

Chris - And what % of people have exclusively just loss of smell and taste and nothing else?

Tim - It's about 16% have it and do not have fever or cough. Now they wouldn't be missed. But for the last few months they would have been missed.

Chris - Taking your figures into account then, how many cases potentially have we overlooked of coronavirus hitherto?

Tim - If we'd done this right at the beginning, at the end of March, and we estimate around 4 million people contracted it, we're talking at least half a million people.

Chris - It's quite a lot, isn't it?

Tim - It is. And I think it's a bit sad we didn't react faster. But the important thing is now that we start to say, "well, how can we use this information positively"? At the moment we seem very obsessed with giving people temperature checks at airports and hospitals and care homes. And our data suggests that we'd actually pick up more cases if we gave them some smell tests.

Chris - So do you think at the airport then, what we should have is a bunch of roses and people have to tell us what they're smelling?

Tim - Yes. And you may be laughing, but they're already doing this in some Asian countries. And I think we've just got to realise this is one of the strangest diseases doctors have ever seen. And we have to be very open minded about collecting all the information and using everything, even if it sounds a bit wacky, to try and reduce its impact.

Chris - So there's a reason if you needed one to meet your loved one at the airport with a bunch of flowers, at least if both of you can smell them, you know, neither of you are incubating coronavirus. But why should the infection cause people to lose their sense of smell in the first place? Well Carl Philpott is a consultant ear, nose and throat specialist, he's at the university of East Anglia.

Carl - There are a few theories working at the moment as to why this is happening. We know that the virus is very concentrated in the nose. One of the theories is that it's infecting the cells at the top of the nose, that are what we call the supporting layer, around the smell receptors. And by doing so, it's effectively squeezing the receptor cells themselves, they're not working properly.

Chris - And will it come back? Because obviously people are very worried, they're rendered abruptly, so-called "anosmic". They say, "well, I suddenly can't start smelling things". Is this going to recover?

Carl - What we're seeing in the data so far is that 50% are getting it back completely within seven to 14 days, another 40% are getting it back partially. And then about 10% so far are not recovering their sense of smell. And I guess at this stage it's too early to say how long they'll be without it. Whether that will be a more lasting effect.

Chris - That's quite a lot though, isn't it, of people who are potentially going to be rendered longterm, lacking in smell and possibly taste.

Carl - Absolutely. I mean, we've been talking about this in research circles that it could be in the tens of thousands of people that have a more lasting effect on their sense of smell or taste.

Chris - And what might be the consequences of that?

Carl - Well, the day to day impact of being without your sense of smell. Let's start with food and nutrition, you know, weight in relation to that. General well being, personal hygiene, and interaction with partners. Sexual attraction is all linked into smell. Memories. There's a whole sort of swathe of things that can be impacted by that.

Children working at school

08:05 - Kids and Covid

How does coronavirus affect children?

Kids and Covid
Jeremy Rossman, University of Kent

Earlier in the month, in his Sunday night TV “address to the nation”, Boris Johnson said the government’s “ambition” was for schools in England to re-open on the 1st of June. At first, the plan was for children in Nursery classes, Reception, Year One and Year Six to go back. But, since then, there’s been a great deal of push back, not least from teachers’ unions and many local authorities. The Prime Minister did say the reopening was conditional on the coronavirus being in retreat, but many are worried that children will catch the infection and spread it more widely, therefore putting us all back to square one. 

But some countries, like New Zealand for instance, have already slackend their lockdown measures and sent their children back into the classrooms. Indeed, it’s generally accepted that children seem to deal better with coronavirus and may even transmit it less. But in some exceptionally rare cases, there appears to be a link between COVID-19 and a severe inflammatory condition, which can have very serious consequences. So what’s the full picture in all this? To get a clearer idea, Adam Murphy spoke to Jeremy Rossman, Professor of Virology at the University of Kent.

Jeremy - Children seem to be able to be infected just as easy as adults do, but they don't seem to replicate the virus to quite as high levels as adults do. Which leads to some of the speculation that perhaps children don't spread the virus effectively. Although we don't know this for sure. What we do know, is that the majority of children that become infected with Covid-19 either have no symptoms whatsoever or have very mild illness.

Adam - Well, if it's the case that kids don't transmit or we can't prove they transmit it, does that mean it's safe to reopen the schools then in that regard?

Jeremy - There is this possibility, but unfortunately the issue is that we don't know for certain because we do know that children can be infected. And that they do produce virus in the respiratory tract and that once you produce virus in the respiratory tract, you can spread the virus. But there have been a few studies that have looked at transmission amongst households and what they've seen is that children don't seem to be the ones that bring an infection into the household. They can be infected by other members in the home, but they don't seem to be the primary ones that are bringing the infection in. And if schools were in full operation, maybe we would see more spread that is mediated by children. We just don't know yet. And so without knowing for sure, that is a fairly big risk, both for the health of the children as whole, but also for spread of Covid-19 amongst families and communities.

Adam - When children have the more severe version of the disease, what does it look like? How does it present?

Jeremy - In a subset of the children that have very severe disease, we're starting to see this new disease presentation, this multi-system hyper inflammatory disease. And that's something that is a little bit different from what we've seen in adults. And that doesn't seem to be associated with this pneumonia or respiratory distress. And this is sort of the new and concerning disease presentation that we're seeing in children.

Adam - If the symptoms are different, what symptoms would you be looking at for this kind of version?

Jeremy - The things that tend to occur are fever. Again, fever seems to be one of the most common disease symptoms in any form of Covid-19. So, what we're looking for is fever and a combination of other symptoms. So fever and perhaps a rash. Or fever and what seems to be the most common indicator is severe abdominal pain or any sort of gastrointestinal disease, diarrhea, vomiting, upset stomach. These together with fever are a really strong indicator that it's time to seek medical attention, because they could be, not necessarily, but they could be an early indicator of this multi-system hyper inflammation. And so it's important to really take action if you see these symptoms.

Adam - And what can it lead to? What problems can this inflammation cause, long term?

Jeremy - So this disease has a lot of similarities with two other diseases. This is Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome. Now it's not either of those two diseases. It just has a lot in common. So Kawasaki disease, this is where you get inflammation of blood vessels. And we see inflammation of blood vessels in this new disease. And part of the problem with that is that first of all, if you get inflammation of the blood vessels, this can be very damaging to your body as a whole, but specifically it can be very damaging because you tend to get a lot of inflammation of blood vessels around the heart. And this can cause heart disease and is one of the reasons why it's so important to treat early. The other disease that it tends to be associated with is this toxic shock syndrome. And this is a massive, robust activation of the inflammatory system. Part of your immune system. Toxic shock is associated with bacterial disease and that's not what's causing this whatsoever. But what we are seeing is this hyper inflammation of the immune system, what we call a cytokine storm. This is just a cascade effect of reinforcing immune activation that can cause a lot of damage in and of itself.

an old style alarm clock, faded with time

Science adapting through history
Jane Gregory, University of Cambridge

Science, and scientists, those in the various disciplines from biology to astrophysics, from mathematics to chemistry, have all had to adapt to the “new normal” of the coronavirus pandemic. From working from home to having to find new and quicker ways to communicate solutions, there have been some big changes. But, as Adam Murphy has been finding out, the world of science knows a thing or two about adapting and changing.

Adam - Given the current crisis, scientists have had to go through the same measures as the rest of us and are now working, at least physically speaking, alone. This wouldn't have been a problem to scientists of the past who nearly always worked alone, but how did we get from there to here? I spoke to Jane Gregory, Programme Director of Science Communication at the Institute of Continuing Education in Madingley, about this shift and how science works.

Jane - The kinds of people we now call scientists didn't really start working together until the 17th century. So before then if you were a person with special knowledge about nature, it was considered important to be on your own. There was a sense that by isolating yourself with nature, you could somehow come to understand it more deeply than if you were living among people. Now in the 16th century, very wealthy people would see the value in having these experts to hand, not sending a messenger out into the woods to look for the herb lady. So they might set up a little shed or cave or something on their estate, and have their wise man or wise woman to hand.

Adam - But working like this couldn't last as the world of science was about to find out.

Jane - Now all of this came together in the middle of the 1600s when, stimulated by the experience of the English Civil War, thinkers started to come together as a way of seeing beyond petty political differences, and with the founding of the Royal Society, which is still around today of course, scientists explicitly asserted that it was better to work together and share information than to work apart. So it became very important for scientists to communicate with each other and to work in groups.

Adam - These days things are so radically different from what they used to be, that even suggesting a scientist only works alone has some pretty negative repercussions.

Jane - And nowadays it can be quite an insult to a scientist for someone to say: "Oh well he or she works on their own." It's considered to be not just ungenerous, but it's also considered to be a way in which your data might not be reliable. You might have something to hide, possibly be cheating. So now a scientist doesn't work on their own, and the very few people who do it are considered to be perhaps a bit eccentric, a bit unreliable. If you want to apply for money to do research, one of the very first things you have to do on the application is to state your group, you have to put what university you work at or what company you work at or what societies you're a member of. You have to be part of the gang in order to do scientific research.

At the moment we’re in this rather odd position of being physically separated but virtually in touch. So we’re in the same communities we always were. And although scientists were quite slow to pick up on social media, for example, compared to other professions, and other social groups, they do now operate pretty well in a virtual sphere. Not only that, but what they’re doing in the virtual sphere is often open and accessible to everybody else. So it may be that by making this move, scientists have actually become more open as a community, as well as maintaining their connectedness, within their professional world.

White storks

19:59 - Storks breeding in Britain

The first British born stork chicks for more than 600 years...

Storks breeding in Britain
Lucy Groves, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

Recently, white storks have become parents for the first time in six hundred years. They are large, migratory birds and we know they used to spend warmer months in Britain because old bones have been found and there’s a cultural legacy in various place names in the south of England. But thanks to being large and delicious, and coupled with the loss of their wetland habitats, they stopped seeing the UK as home and have steadfastly refused to breed here since the year 1416. The birth of the chicks has come about thanks to the White Stork Project, a partnership between landowners and conservationists. More than 150 rehabilitated and captive-bred white storks have been brought to the south of England in recent years to kick start the programme. Eva Higginbotham spoke to the project’s Lucy Groves...

Lucy - Most of the birds that came to us in 2016 were young birds that had been injured, so they're only just reaching sexual maturity, which is why we haven't really had much luck with them up until now. We did have a pair who attempted to breed last year; they had three eggs, which failed to hatch, and the female was just under four years old, so we think possibly with her those were just infertile eggs because of her age. And she and her partner from last year are the pair that have managed to hatch three chicks this year. Which is fantastic.

Eva - Fantastic, so it's three chicks that have hatched - when did that happen?

Lucy - In that first nest... so we've got three nests, and only two of them ended up having eggs in. This pair, they hatched their eggs on the 6th of May, so they're only just coming up for two weeks old. And we went out with our drone on Monday to check the second nest, and I can now confirm that we've actually got another three chicks in the second nest! So we've got two separate nests with chicks in, which is really exciting.

Eva - Super exciting. Fantastic. So what's the life like for a newly-hatched stork chick?

Lucy - The parents are really, really attentive. It's 33 days' incubation period, so they're really good, they take it in turns, they both work equally hard to make sure that those eggs stay safe, and when the chicks hatch as well. So they're being brooded by the parents and they are being sat on, kept nice and warm; although with the sunny weather that we've had today, I've actually noticed that the adults are standing and holding their wings out to shelter them from the blazing sun. So they're doing a really good job. And it takes 60 days for them to fledge, it's quite a long period; and adults will be going off foraging - they eat mainly insects, but they will also take small mammals, they'll take fish, things like that, but this time of the year when all the bugs and that are hatching out it's mainly the insects - and the adults will actually regurgitate the food back onto the nest. Unlike other birds that get the food regurgitated straight into the chick's mouth, it's regurgitated onto the nest and the chicks help themselves to it.

Eva - So what might this success mean for conservation efforts around the UK, in terms of birds?

Lucy - One of the things that's really interesting with the white stork project is that these birds are so charismatic; they're really large, they're beautiful birds. And we're using them not just to reintroduce a missing species, but to engage people, to reconnect people with nature, and get people talking about habitats and ecosystems and how things work. And what we're hoping is that it will drive awareness and pro-conservation behaviour change, and just wake people up to the issues that are out there. But also, in and around these areas where we're releasing these storks, we're talking to local landowners, we're looking at ways that we can improve the habitats, we're looking at the ways that perhaps using less pesticides will have great impact on the health of the storks, but also other species as well. So we're hoping it will have a knock-on effect, a positive knock-on effect, for other species that may need our help. Conservation is one of those things; it's quite difficult to get funding for 'little brown jobs', as they're normally called: small birds, small animals that are really, really important in ecosystems, but they're not quite as charismatic. So the white stork, we're hoping, can be a flagship species to drive these really important conversations and get people looking at the way that they're managing the land, not just for the storks, but for everything else as well.

For more on the history of white storks in the UK, listen to our interview with conservation biologist Alexander Lees.

image of a stethoscope and a laptop computer

26:09 - Video calling your doctor

What's it like to see your doctor over webcam, rather than waiting room?

Video calling your doctor
Lucas Seuren, Oxford University

The coronavirus pandemic is obviously having an enormous impact on hospitals. And lockdown is also changing the way community health workers communicate with patients. Many doctors and nurses are doing phone calls, or video calls, to dramatically limit how many people come into surgeries. So what’s it like to go from waiting room to webcam? Local GP Sarah and her patient Wendy invited Katie Haylor to listen in on an appointment, conducted over an Internet video link, and here’s a taster of what went on...

Wendy - I've got a rash up here on my abdomen, at the top, just above the belly button.

Sarah - And what day did that start?

Wendy - About Sunday.

Sarah - Right. Okay. So you think it's been going on for about five days now?

Wendy - Yes, it has. Yes. And it's quite itchy as well.

Sarah - And can you describe to me Wendy, what it looks like?

Wendy - Yes. So it's red, and it started off as small dots and then gradually got bigger. So now the redness has sort of gone into one sort of mass, if you like, with little spots on top.

Sarah - It looks very much like shingles.

Wendy - Oh, okay.

Sarah - Just want to check Wendy, have you ever had chicken pox before?

Wendy - Yes. Yes I did. As a child, yes.

Sarah - Right. Okay. When we've had chicken pox, the virus lives in our nerves forever, and then it can reactivate itself along one nerve. And I think that's what's happened here. For the itch, if we give you an anti-histamine to help that, and then the second thing we need to do is to give you some acyclovir tablets.

Wendy - Okay.

Sarah - If it's a little bit hot and burning. You can just pop a little bit of calamine lotion or cream on it. And then the final thing just to be aware of with shingles, is sometimes people can get a nerve pain afterwards. If that happens, you need to let me know and then we'll look at painkilling treatments to try and help that.

Wendy - Okay. Yep.

Katie - After the consultation, I caught up first with Wendy, and then with Sarah about how they found it.

Wendy - It was a positive experience. It's not something that I've done before, but I feel my doctor has met my needs in this current difficult time.

Katie - Were there any aspects of that communication you felt were better than if you'd gone to see Sarah in the surgery?

Wendy - I don't know if it was better. It was just very useful. Got into what we needed to do. It takes away the risk and anxiety of leaving home, because I'm shielding at the moment, so that was very useful.

Katie - Was there anything actually you felt was missing in terms of not being able to go and your GP face-to-face?

Wendy - No, not at all. Because I was able to show my doctor the actual rash that I had on my abdomen.

Katie - Sarah as a GP, how was it for you?

Sarah - I think it was really helpful in Wendy's case because, particularly with a rash, it's so useful to have these video consultations, so that you can have a good look at the rash and get an idea of what the patient's describing to you verbally as well. It does have some drawbacks. Sometimes if the camera's perhaps not as clear as seeing someone face to face, it can be a little bit difficult to see some things. But in general it works very well I think. And this new technology has great advantages when you're not feeling well, it's nice to just be in your own home and be able to chat to your doctor or nurse like this. It's useful from the point of view of infection control. So lots of patients aren't mingling in the same waiting room, spreading their infections from one to the other.

Katie - Have you had any circumstances in which actually it's really difficult to get in touch with people this way, this video conferencing way, or just over the phone.

Sarah - It can crash sometimes. We had a thunderstorm recently and it just stopped the electricity for a while and everything went off. But in general we found the majority of people we've spoken to, it's worked very well.

Katie - What about in terms of managing time? I know that GPs are really pressed for time. Do you find that video conferencing is better or worse?

Sarah - Yeah, I'm finding it a lot better actually. Because I have my list of perhaps 15 or 16 patients to speak to in a morning, and I can scan down the list and deal with any urgent things first. And then, you know, I'm finding that if someone needs a five minute consultation or a 15 minute consultation, I can be more flexible. I also think it makes you less stressed because you're not having people waiting and running late in the same way that you do running a normal surgery. General practice does seem to be moving to this telephone triage system, where we're talking to everyone on the phone first and then we're sorting a lot of problems out over the phone. We can send electronic prescriptions across for people to the local pharmacies to collect. I think it's probably going to be the future of general practice.

Katie - What about patients who might not feel comfortable doing a video call or might not actually have the kit necessary to facilitate it?

Sarah - Yes. I think that's particularly the case with perhaps some of our vulnerable, older patients who perhaps don't have the technology. We've been getting around that with some of them by just telephoning them, and then deciding if we need to see any older people, and also people's daughters, sons and their carers, can often work the technology on the older person or the vulnerable person's behalf.

Katie - Thanks very much to Wendy and GP Sarah. So could this be the new normal? Well, Lucas Seuren researches exactly this kind of communication at Oxford University. He's analysed the whole of the consultation and he's down the line, hi Lucas. What did you make of the consultation?

Lucas - I thought it was very similar to what we expect video consultation to be compared to a face to face consultation. But if you look at how the consultation works, in terms of moving from a problem presentation towards getting a diagnosis, and determining on treatment that goes in exactly the same way as it would have gone probably in a face to face consultation, which is good because you want the quality of healthcare over video, that you'd also get in a face to face consultation. And it works in the allotted time period. It's a quick alternative and it's a good alternative. In that case.

Katie - Do people behave the same way though, both patient and doctor, or are there any differences?

Lucas - So what we find in our research is that patients can, and are allowed to be a little bit more assertive, if you will. So because they are in their own home and they have to, some do more self management in terms of their own care. They also take that responsibility towards themselves. So where normally if for example, you think about a physical examination, the clinician lays hands on the patients and the patient undergoes, so to speak, that examination. In a video consultation, we find that patients take more responsibility and want that responsibility for themselves actually.

Katie - So Wendy and Sarah were reflecting on their experience, and they mentioned a few positives, maybe a few negatives. Are there any other obvious advantages or drawbacks?

Lucas - So an obvious advantage would be, for example, in terms of mental health care. We've talked to mental health providers and what they say is that video consultations for them are a great opportunity, because sometimes patients are uncomfortable with leaving the house, or they may forget their appointments. And then when they have the opportunity of a video consultation, they can have that from the comfort of their own home. They don't have to worry about the stress of going outside, or of meeting their appointment. At the same time if they forget it, it's easy to dial in at the last minute. The flip side is that because there's a lot of sensitive issues that people have to talk about, we aren't always comfortable doing that over video. So for example, in the consultation we just heard patient has a rash on her abdomen. And we typically fine with showing that over video, but not all parts of our body we like to share over the internet, and similarly there are issues we might rather not discuss online. We prefer to talk to somebody face to face, but this also varies from patient to patient. So it's hard to determine what kind of care is appropriate for whom, and that's still an issue that needs to be worked out.

Katie - What is the current situation in terms of privacy concerns?

Lucas - One of the main concerns is whether a consultation is appropriately secure. We've talked to lots of patients over the last year about what they worry about when they have a video consultation, and one of the things is the system security. Can somebody listen in to my consultation when it's online? And we've had a lot of security issues with consumer software like Zoom that makes people more worried about that. In reality, the software that GP practices normally use are secure. So there shouldn't be issues around that. But whether that works in practice, like taking those concerns away from patients is an issue. But with appropriate security measures, that typically works out fine.

Katie - And very briefly, do you think this could be the new normal, say if you don't need to actually have a procedure?

Lucas - Yeah. So if you don't need a procedure done, almost always a video consultation, maybe even a telephone consultation will be all you need. In some cases, telephone might be easier to set up, but video can offer some reassurance.

image of teacher next to blackboard, via video call

The "new normal" for education
Holly Linklater, Edinburgh University

Holly Linklater, a former Cambridge-based primary school teacher, now directs Edinburgh University’s primary education programme and has been involved in organising regular seminars for teachers, young people and parents about learning through lockdown, and she spoke to Chris Smith, who asked firstly about the impacts of kids having to learn at home...

Holly - Really varied. And one of the things that's really emerged from the seminars that we've been running is just how very different practices across the countries within the United Kingdom, on a both a school by school basis, also across local authorities and academy trusts. And also for some children, young people actually within schools where different teachers are taking different approaches and children and their families are receiving very different quantities and qualities of information.

Chris - Indeed, some people are saying that actually we might be setting back educational narrowing of the divide by potentially a generation in a very short time because you end up with a situation where children, which have got plenty of resources, very motivated teachers, a good internet connection at home and a decent laptop are just fine, potentially. Those which have less supportive parents or a less good learning environment might not be.

Holly - Absolutely. And of course they're not two equal bins. You might have a laptop and very good wifi, but you might have two parents who are both working from home with very intense workloads at the moment, and so not available to be with you versus poor wifi but a parent who's on hand. So I think that it will take a while before we learn about, kind of, what has been going on and how young learners have been affected. It would be fair to say that whilst children aren't learning the typical school curriculum at the moment in exactly the same way in which they would be if they were going to school, they are learning other things and learning in alternative ways. So it's not necessarily a complete loss of learning, it's just learning is taking on a slightly different shape.

Chris - What about people who are in the position where this was going to be the big year for them doing public exams, getting into university? What's happening to their education?

Holly - Yeah. Well, again, I'm going to think it is this, this issue of the different shape and the way in which we are thinking about curriculum, and the way in which a very specific curriculum matters, and the way in which we gather information about young people's skills in relation to that curriculum, which is effectively what exams are doing has been significantly challenged. And I don't think it's possible yet to really answer your question, actually, I think that it will be the ways in which schools and universities choose to respond to the learners. Because for many of those learners, I would say the vast majority actually, they've achieved the learning through a course of study over many years, and it's now what, you know, how is that learning being recognised by the institution or the workplace they might be seeking to move on to. But those institutions and workplaces have got significant challenges in terms of they haven't got the normal or the more typical devices like exam results by which they can source and sift their candidates.

Chris - Thank goodness that this all happened now because we do at least have internet connections that mean we can download something at less than one nanobit per century. Which means that it has been possible for at least a proportion of children to continue to be educated remotely. How do you see technology impacting on this market then? How is education going to change informed by technology?

Holly - Probably the most useful concept to hold in mind is the idea that what we're going to be doing is entering into a new sort of conversation about the way in which we conceptualize or imagine how teachers will work. And whereas up 'til this point, the model of schooling, a room with some desks in it with children sitting behind those desks and usually a teacher at the front near some sort of board talking at the young people and it's, you know, it's very physical. It happens in a specific building called school and it happens at very particular times of day. I think that all of that has been disrupted and I think that to a great extent some of that disruption will last for the very long term. I think in the medium-long term there is this real challenge around what capacity schools have in the short term to bring people in face to face and to what extent the limitations of that capacity are going to necessitate what's generally being called blended learning. I have to say there is quite a lot of confusion around what we mean by the idea of blended learning - generally accepted that it involves technology as some part of the way in which young people will access the resources that they might use in order to engage with opportunities.

Chris - Is there also a real risk that these children are going to be guinea pigs? Because teachers are very good at teaching because they've learned to teach well doing it the way we have for a really long time, some of them, and children have learned to be taught that way. So we're going to have to reteach teachers to teach and we're going to have to reteach kids to learn.

Holly - Potentially, but also potentially a really exciting opportunity because, don't forget, although we do have a system that people are very used to at the moment, we have huge issues of inequality within our education system. It's a well recognised problem that parental income is the greatest indicator of educational outcomes for young people. The kinds of opportunities that we might be developing through these kinds of innovations that this change might be necessitating teachers to make, could be a really fantastic opportunity for some of those inequities to be addressed. It's far too early to tell. One of the really big differences that I've become fascinated by in the last few weeks has been how the grouping of learners has changed so significantly - that within the school context, children are batched according to age and they are most typically taught in single age classes. And what we've now had is children moving to, and young people moving to learning in the context of their families. And they might be an only child, so they might be learning alongside a couple of, or one other adult. But they might be learning alongside siblings who would typically be very different ages to them. And that I think is really opening our eyes as practitioners to the way in which we think about what really matters in terms of what counts as learning, and how we best facilitate learning. And the children and young people that I've been working with over the last few weeks have been very consistent in their message that actually what's really important to them, it's the contact with each other.

Chris - You're sort of saying, I think, that education needs a damn good shake up, this is an opportunity or a catalyst for that shakeup to happen. Because one report I read suggested that if you look at generation Z individuals born from the mid 1990s, 85% of the jobs that they're going to be doing that we're extensively training them for in schools right now, that they're going to be doing in 2030, don't even exist yet. So therefore that we have to have an eye on the future and this is an opportunity to reevaluate

Holly - Of course. And I think teachers do that. I don't think that schools are training young people for specific jobs. I think the notion of curriculum that we have within education in schools at the moment is much broader and richer than that. But you're absolutely right, types of employment are also changing very quickly. And that's really different to, for example, 50 years ago where you might well have been able to predict the sort of job that you were going to get when you grew up. And also that you would do that with some sorts of expectation that you probably be in that job for a significant number of years, quite possibly your entire working life. And that's very different as well. And so having an education system, that is nimble and adaptive is absolutely critical. And having technology and digital literacy and data literacy as a core part of that, I think everybody recognises is going to have to be part of the future. And schools were already working towards that, and I think what's happened because of this pandemic is a sort of kick-starting of some things that many schools knew they were going to have to do anyway but might not quite have got round to. It was rather like in the interview that our colleague from health was saying in terms of how GPS are used to working. I think the really big difference that we have in terms of the provision of education and schooling with the use of technology that is very different for schools than it is for that example of how a GP appointment might work is that actually education is not simply about a relationship with an individual. That's part of it, but it's not the whole thing. That actually the way in which humans learn as social animals is very, very important and there are some really great stuff coming out of the use of technology to enable those social contact., And I think it's really important that we as educators hold that in mind and that we don't just reduce the communication that we are using technology for to being simply of that very kind of one way teacher-pupil and hopefully a little bit of pupil back to teacher relationship, that actually pupil to pupil is also incredibly important.


image of inside an empty bus

46:21 - Public transport out of lockdown

What could public transport in the "new normal" look like?

Public transport out of lockdown
Darren Capes, IET

With the recent ease in restrictions and some people going back to work, what does the future of our public transport system look like? Darren Capes is a transport expert from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. He spoke to Katie Haylor and Chris Smith, who firstly asked him to summarise how lockdown has impacted public transport...

Darren - Yeah, I don't think it's a great surprise to anyone to say that public transport has been hugely affected. We're currently seeing bus and train use at around 5% of its pre-coronavirus levels. Which of course is massively affecting the way the industry works. And of course most trains in the UK, most buses are privately run. They're either run as private concerns or they're run as franchises. And this means that they are very much reliant on the money that they make through ticket sales and that of course has completely evaporated. So they are fundamentally now being paid for and operated by the government, which is a massive change. Anyone that's worked in transport as long as I have will be amazed to have heard the government saying recently that people should avoid public transport, people should drive to work. This is something we never expected to hear in our lifetimes. So of course it's absolutely important that we do say that, that's absolutely important that we follow that guidance, but that creates massive challenges for public transport.

Katie - What kind of challenges? Can you lay a few out for us?

Darren - How we fund transport going forward is one, and certainly at its current levels of use, public transport is not a viable business, it can't operate like that. And the models for the way that we run buses and trains in this country just don't work at those kinds of ridership levels. It also means that as long as we have social distancing, we won't be able to carry anything like the number of people that public transport used to carry. One in five is the kind of level, the kind of usage that we're able to see. So the whole way that public transport operates is challenged. The change in travel to work patterns, we don't know how they're going to stick yet. We don't know how many of the 54% of people currently home working will continue to home work. And that will have a massive effect on peak hour travel, it will have a massive effect on the number of buses and trains that are needed to carry people into work and back. We simply don't know how that will play out here. But I think it's absolutely right to say that in the future public transport will be a fundamentally different business to the one it was a few months ago.

Chris - Do you think we will have a new normal for transport or do you think we'll have a temporary new normal and then once everyone gets their confidence back and forgets all this in a year or so we'll be back to how we were? Cramming into underground trains, packing onto buses, back to a microbial stew pot that we all love.

Darren - Some of us love! I think we'll have both.

Chris - I was being facetious, just in case you're wondering. I don't think there was a single commuter among us that would welcome a return to where we were, but unfortunately part of me suspects that's the way we're going ahead isn't it?

Darren - I think so. I think looking back we will all say that similar things we used to do feel very strange now, but we are heading for two stages of this. I don't know how long social distancing will continue, but I think it's likely to be quite a long time. I think public transport will feel very strange in that period. I hope it's not so long that we have to fundamentally redesign public transport to deal with it. I hope we get back to a new normal soon enough for us to be able to think about what public transport looks like in the longer term. But I think it's absolutely the case that it may well be a very long time before we all want to cram onto the Victoria line at half past eight in the morning again, even if we're allowed to. As I said, the 54% of us that are now home working, many of us will want to continue to do that. Many of us will work shelter weeks in the office. The morning and evening peaks, which are the sort of the defining thing that public transport has to deal with at the moment, they will look very different I think in the future, and that will fundamentally alter the way that transport works. And that will fundamentally alter the way that we finance transport, how we pay for major infrastructure, how we pay for new trains, new buses, et cetera.

Chris - The worry is of course that without the current crush that we have with rush hours, it might lead to more reduction in investment in public transport because they'll just say, well, all these people can work at home, then

Darren - I hope it won't lead to less investment. I hope it will, well, one of the things I think as transport professionals we hope for is that we end up with a transport network that isn't so as I said, peaky. That isn't so built around meeting two quite sharp peaks in the day and would help move to a transport network that's able to use its capacity better. We know that on the tube and on the railways, on buses as well, lots of vehicles stand idle for large parts of the day because they were only required for the morning and evening peak. It'd be nice to move to a network that spreads the efficiency more through the day. It'd be nice to move to a network that rather than being configured around conveying large numbers of people from suburbs into cities, then back again, is able to meet a wider range of transport requirements, a wider range of journeys and a wider range of use type. We could hope that that transport becomes a lot more responsive to the way the world is changing than it was pre-covid.

Chris - So when Grant Shapps, transport secretary, when he says that we can only move a fifth of people with our current rolling rail stock transport networks and so on, in order to observe social distancing and so on, is that if we tried to assume the current model of how people rush to work and rush home, if we were to take into account the ideas that you're putting forward, that perhaps we all decide we don't like the rush hour and we're going to stagger how we get to work and go home from work, actually when one looks at how that might be serviced, do we have a more sort of theoretically feasible infrastructure at the moment to service that sort of industry? And do you think that that will be the way it goes for that reason?

Darren - When the peak hour becomes completely saturated, people do move their journeys, they're told to work earlier or later, we see the length of the peak spreading. What this current principal of only a fifth of the capacity available will do is it will absolutely increase that peak spreading and people will look to try and travel earlier or later. I mean if we use a bus or a train in the middle of the day, we know that they're generally not more than one fifth full anyway, so that that capacity could be there. There will be a need for the transport network to change, but there will be a need for employers and employees to change behaviour as well to spread loads of the day more. I think increasingly it just won't be possible to travel in the morning peak with any form of reliability while these measures are in place.

Chris - We've dwelled very much on things like buses and trains, but let's consider planes because that's different. Planes are most efficient when they're full and at the moment we can't just spread everyone out and then just say, well take your journey an hour later because the plane goes and it ideally goes full. So that industry still remains broken. Doesn't it?

Darren - It does. Yes. I think it's much harder to see how aviation could move forward. I think you're right. I think it's an industry that over many years has become very, very precisely honed on carrying full planes of people around. And I think it could operate, but I think fairs will be much more expensive. I can see that suppressing demand. I think that there is capacity that will need to be shed from the airline industry to deal with that. It's interesting because that will, that potentially has gains in terms of CO2. You know, reduced aviation is in environmental standards not a bad thing, but of course in terms of people's ability to travel and do what we all want to do, it is a bad thing. So that's a complex issue in terms of politics, in terms of transport, how much we would want in the future to use public money to support an airline industry.

Chris - Hmm. So if we may summarise then the new normal that you foresee for things like trains and buses and possibly boats with the rush in mind, we'll just spread the rush a bit more and actually what we've got already could work and could support that and that might be okay, but at the moment you can't really offer us a new normal vision for the airline industry. It looks like cheap flights are off the cheap hot holiday, which people have become largely addicted to. Those days are probably numbered, do you think?

Darren - I think that the business model of the airline industry would struggle. I think the final thing to say is that the government has made an awful lot of data and apps recently and there's been a number of challenges to use data and build apps for travel and I think we will see that playing a much more important role in how we travel in the future. I think we will probably have to become much more reliant on better using data, building apps that the public can use, so we can see when it's safe to travel. We can see when the trains and buses are empty. I think what we're seeing is that the investment that the government's bringing forward in that type of technology is here to stay and will play an increasing part in how we use public transport.

An array of four electrical wires.

55:05 - QotW: How do electrons flow in electric current?

Do electrons leave their atoms for form electric current?

QotW: How do electrons flow in electric current?

Rakesh - 'So typically when electrons flow for the electric current, do they come out from the atoms and flow as electric current? Is it not true that when electrons come out from atoms light and energy is released? So why don't electric wires change their colours?'

Eva - I put the question to Dr Ankita Anirban, an expert on electron transport.

Ankita - When you imagine electric current flowing through a wire, think of a mexican wave in a stadium. Each person in the chain moves and contributes to the wave passing through, but nobody actually has to leave their place. Similarly, the electrons are moving and passing on energy to their neighbours which causes a current to flow. In a metal wire, the electrons creating the current are not tightly bound to the atom, they’re known as free electrons.

Eva - Evan_au and alancalverd described these ‘free’ electrons on our forum, thanks guys! But where does light fit in?

Ankita -  A wire might light up if it gets very hot - we often say something glows red-hot or white-hot - this is a process called incandescence where heat is turned into light. Old filament light bulbs use this to turn electricity into light, and you’ll notice that when a bulb has been left on for a while, it will be very hot to touch.

Eva - So wires do light up when enough current passes through them but not due to electrons leaving atoms, but because the wire gets hot, and that heat energy turns into light energy. It turns out that’s a different process from the way we make more modern lights we’re all familiar with, LEDs, as Ankita explained.

Ankita - If you provide a tightly bound electron with a little bit of energy, it won’t be enough to leave the atom completely but it will jump a bit further away from the nucleus. This is what we call an excited state. But it won’t stay excited for long, and soon it falls back to its original state. It’s actually when the electron falls back into the atom that energy is released in the form of light. The colour of the light simply depends on the amount of energy emitted, and this is how an LED light bulb works.

So what happens when an electron actually leaves an atom? This is called static electricity, like when you rub a balloon on your hair. The outer electrons that are loosely connected to the nucleus are rubbed off, and you are left with positively charged hair and a negatively charged balloon. The reason your hair then stands up is because it is now attracted to the balloon and all the strands of hair are repelling each other. Eventually your hair absorbs electrons from the air and becomes neutral again.

Eva - Thanks for clearing that one up Ankita! Next week, we’ll be thinking about the International Space Station to answer this question from Fady.

Fady - Has life changed for astronauts on the ISS due to coronavirus, and are astronauts still allowed to be sent to and from the ISS?


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