Friday 29 May 2020

COVID-19 has brought the “digital divide” to the fore

Posted by Gemma Wilson, Health Psychologist & Research Fellow in Applied Health, Northumbria University

With the onset of COVID-19 it seems that we are relying on technology even more than usual. Many of us are using technology as our main source of communication, such as for work meetings via Zoom, family chats on FaceTime, WhatsApp messaging, or sending photos. Online food shopping, ordered and delivered to your door, has become the norm. Internet banking and health services have become more important than ever, and online communication platforms are even allowing us to continue our hobbies and exercise. But not everyone has access to these tools to support their daily living and wellbeing at home. Even people with access to the technology may not have the skills to use platforms, such as Facebook, Skype or Zoom, which still leads to exclusion.

There is an ever-growing number of older adults using the internet and social media, with notable increased use across the UK, USA, and Europe over the last decade. However, older adults still remain less likely than younger people to use the internet and social media. That’s why we decided to do a piece of research that aimed to explore older adults’ experiences of using technology, including social media, to connect with others. Part of this study involved interviewing 20 people who were over 65 years old from across the UK, to understand how they used technology to communicate with others, and to consider what helps and hinders their use of technology. 

All participants in the study regularly used digital devices and social media, however, despite their regular use of technology, they still experienced five barriers to using it as a tool to connect with others:

1. Confidence
Some had low confidence, seeing themselves as novices and not “technology minded”, and some lacked patience with technology.

2. Fear
Some were fearful that they would break the devices, do something “wrong” that they couldn’t fix, or they were worried about privacy and misinformation.

3. Practical issues
Some experienced physical barriers, such as the size of text, or the buttons being too small.

4. Culture and communication
Cultural differences around communication impacted the way some of the participants used social media and their online connections. They worried about how they would come across or didn’t like the way others communicated using social media.

5. Social network
Finally, we also found that existing social groups and relationships were key in the older adults choosing to use technology and in helping to provide ongoing support. Often without this existing social network, they would not have even received a digital device, let alone started using it, or understanding how to maintain it.

The overall message that we took away from this research is that technology - even for those who use it on a regular basis - is still only a tool for social connection, a welcome tool, but only a tool, and it certainly isn’t a replacement for face-to-face communication. However, during COVID-19, technology must be a replacement for face-to-face communication, and is the best available way for us to remain connected with friends and family.

The reliance on technology since the onset of COVID-19 has brought the “digital divide” to the fore in the context of these barriers. Many will continue to rely heavily on technology during this uncertain period, and for as long as we are social distancing. During these measures, it is important that we consider people who do not have access to technology and are unable to rely on it in a way that others can, as well as those that do have access but continue to experience difficulties in its use. Specifically, due to no longer being able to rely on social groups and wider support networks for guidance in using technology. This lack of access significantly heightens inequalities for so many people in all of the ways discussed above.

To find out more about this study, the podcast “Ageing in a Digital World” is available to listen/download on the following platforms:

Dr Gemma Wilson is a Health Psychologist, and a Research Fellow in Applied Health at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her research interests are in ageing, psychosocial wellbeing, digital inclusion, social participation, digital health. Contact Gemma at, or on Twitter via @drgemmawilson.

Research team: Dr Gemma Wilson, Mrs Jessica Gates, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Deborah Morgan.

The research was funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust.

Friday 22 May 2020

Covid-19 and the legacy of Edward Jenner: a tale of two pathogens

Posted by Lesley Haley, AskFuse Research Associate, Teesside University 

2020 is going to be a momentous year in world history as the year that the Covid-19 pandemic changed all our lives.

Edward Jenner, English physician who discovered the smallpox vaccine
Coincidentally, this year also marks the 40th anniversary of a significant historic milestone for another deadly disease, but in this case, one which maimed, killed and shaped global history for the past three thousand years (Flight 2011). That disease was smallpox.

On the surface, there is nothing in common between a dead disease and a newly emerging one. But there are some aspects of the history of smallpox that resonate with the unfolding story of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Smallpox was still a killer when I was vaccinated against it in 1967 as part of a routine public health intervention, although it was no longer endemic in the UK. For my mother’s generation, the reality of smallpox was very stark. She experienced the panic of an outbreak in her home town of Glasgow during the war when she was only 10, and again when she was 16, when smallpox killed front-line staff treating infected patients at the local hospital.

Although in 1967 outbreaks in the UK of smallpox were getting rarer, the worldwide picture was very different. Smallpox was still endemic in many countries, maiming and killing an estimated 10-15 million people a year (Baxby 1999). This was despite the fact that Edward Jenner had first introduced a prototype inoculation against smallpox in 1798, had translated his theories and ideas into practice, and had a huge impact during his lifetime (the academic dream!).

One aspect of Jenner’s life and work bears closer scrutiny in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, and particularly on the emerging debate surrounding the development of a new vaccine. During his lifetime, Jenner made his research, his ideas and his smallpox inoculations freely available to everyone, irrespective of who they were (Baxby 1999). Jenner and his contemporaries appreciated the commercial opportunities of his discovery, but he continued to give free inoculations to everyone who approached him at his surgery, despite the detrimental financial impact this had on his personal and professional life (Britannica 2020). He understood exactly what the implications of his discovery meant for the common good.

So if Jenner’s work was freely available, (and although certainly not perfect), why was smallpox still endemic in some countries in the world in 1967? Millward (2019) proposed that one of the main issues had been the lack of global “joined up thinking” in the approach towards smallpox eradication. It took until 1967 for countries where smallpox was not endemic to realise that they would always be at risk of continual and increasing numbers of smallpox outbreaks, if the disease was still endemic in other parts of the world. Wherever in the world there was smallpox outbreaks, it caused mass panic, strained public health systems to the limit, maimed and killed, and even had economic impacts on national and international trade and travel (Millward 2019). It therefore became in every countries' interest to support a systematic, unified and global approach to smallpox eradication. Under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global strategy of surveillance, containment and vaccination free at the point of delivery and irrespective of ability to pay, worked. In 1980, the WHO declared the world free from smallpox (Baxby 1999) and it became the “first disease to be controlled by immunisation, the first to be eradicated” (Baxby 1999).

So what will historians say about the story of Covid-19? What will be the role of the global community in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic? Will Jenner’s altruistic example of free and accessible vaccinations be consigned to the history books in the 2020 global race to develop a lifesaving Covid-19 vaccine?

On the global front, 4 May 2020 saw world leaders, the UN, research institutions and philanthropic organisations pledge resources to find a vaccine for Covid-19 (albeit with the ominous absence of two major world powers) (BBC 2020). And the race for a vaccine has sparked debates on who, where, and how people would access a Covid-19 vaccine, with speculation for example, that pharmaceutical companies may have to change their business practices (Chu 2020). In the history of smallpox in the UK, vaccine stockpiles were held by private businesses, highlighting “that public health resources were not always in public hands” (Millward 2019, p. 64).

Global businesses have also contributed to an “Open Covid Pledge, “to make intellectual property available free of charge for use in ending Covid-19 pandemic and minimising the impact of the disease” (Open Covid Pledge 2020).

When global powers pulled together for the common good, it took just 13 years to rid the world of a disease that had killed millions across the continents of Africa, America, Australia, Asia and Europe in its 3000 year reign of terror. Prior to that, without global unity and treatment free at the point of delivery, it took 169 years. I wonder what Edward Jenner would have thought?

So as our Covid-19 story unfolds in 2020 and beyond, I wonder how future generations will judge the actions and decisions of our current global leaders and businesses?

  1. Flight, C (2011) Smallpox : Eradicating the scourge. BBC History. Last updated 17 Feb 2011. Available: Accessed: 05 May 2020.
  2. Baxby, D (1999) The End of Smallpox. History Today Vol 49 Issue 3. Available:
  3. Britannica (2020) Edward Jenner. Available: Accessed: 6 May 2020. 
  4. Millward G (2019) “Smallpox” Vaccinating Britain: Mass vaccination and the public since the Second World War, Chapter 2. [Internet]. Manchester (UK): Manchester University Press; 2019. Chapter 2. Available:!po=98.8688 Accessed: 5 May 2020. 
  5. BBC News (2020) Coronavirus: World Leaders pledge billions for vaccine fight. Available: Accessed: 5 May 2020. 
  6. Chu, B(2020) “To find a vaccine for coronavirus, pharmaceutical companies will have to Adamson the race for profit”. The Independent. Available at: Accessed: 16 April 2020. 
  7. The Open Covid Pledge (2020) Available: Accessed: 5 May 2020. 

  • Mrs Patricia Hoyland (pers comm)
  • BBC Today programme. Thought for the day. David Wilkinson 4 May 2020.

  1. Edwar Jenner” by Pan American Health Organization PAHO via, copyright © 2010: Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
  2. The logo of Open COVID Pledge project, 27 August 2020. Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons (

Friday 15 May 2020

Experts by Experience challenge us to create opportunities for them to take the lead in research

Posted by Ang Broadbridge (Research and Evaluation Lead) and Ged Hazlehurst (Expert by Experience) Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead

Earlier this year Fuse and Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead co-chaired a Quarterly Research Meeting sharing initial findings from a joint research project that explored the reasons underlying high death rates among people with multiple and complex needs (MCN). There we asked attendees to consider the findings and help shape recommendations.

Now as we write up the findings during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded that drug related deaths and MCN issues have been a public health crisis long before the pandemic, though it has drawn an even sharper focus on health inequalities at this time.

The findings from the study will be available in a forthcoming end of project report but in this blog we wanted to go behind the scenes with Experts by Experience to share our experiences of co-production in public health research.

Some background

So what is Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead (FLNG), and what are Experts by Experience? FLNG is an eight-year learning programme looking to improve the lives of people with complex needs and build a trauma-informed approach within the services that support people across Newcastle and Gateshead. Experts by Experience are people with lived experience of multiple and complex needs, and have vital things to say that can help shape the future of how systems and services work for their peers.

Co-producing research

Co-production is bringing together the people using services and the people providing those services to share power and work collectively to design, develop or deliver improvements to them. This also involves seeing services and staff as agents for change and seeing people who use services as assets with skills, who in turn, gain from their contributions and move towards positive change. For example, Experts by Experience on the FLNG programme have developed training resources for Department for Work & Pensions staff raising awareness of MCN issues, which were rolled out across JobCentre Plus.

FLNG wants research to be genuinely co-produced and has invested in creating a National Vocational Qualification accredited peer research skills training package and local Peer Research Network. This is to support a shift from involvement led by professionals to an approach in which peers define the remit and research questions, leading on all aspects of the research design, delivery and dissemination.

Experts by Experience defining research problems

The beauty of the Fulfilling Lives programme has been our small team and the small caseloads; with at the most eight frontline practitioners each working full time with just 10-12 people. We work intimately with these people, building strong trusting relationships, getting to know their families, and being by their side through crisis.

Between 2014 and 2020 we worked with 267 people, during which time we experienced 27 deaths on programme. That is around 10% of the client cohort, so you can perhaps imagine the impact of that 10% on a small team who have been deeply involved in the lives of the people they have navigated through services.

We talked to our Experts by Experience Network about this and as the programme research lead I (Ang) was really wary about the sensitive subject matter and its potential for re-traumatising. My thinking was challenged when the Experts Network were really passionate about deaths in their community and told us they were already talking about it, often without much support, so not to shy away. Then they challenged us to think about how our co-production and peer research offer could dig deeper to explore this issue. We asked Experts by Experience to help us explore what it would look like for them to take a peer-led approach to this work. They really helped shape the ethics process, for example they told us to look within their Network for participants, as we could guarantee good support for people to discuss any issues that emerged out of participation. In doing so they, the Experts by Experience, identified the topic for this project.

What was the feedback from our co-produced research event? 

When we met for the Fuse QRM the purpose of the session was to study the initial findings gathered from the series of focus groups we ran exploring MCN deaths. It was interesting then that the feedback we received from the event, asking people’s views on what we found and what was surprising, clustered around co-production in research. This suggests that this research has the potential to challenge beliefs about the involvement of people with lived experience in public health research:
  • People were surprised by the extent to which Experts by Experience were able to take on such a difficult subject, and;
  • People were surprised by the normalisation of death within our Expert by Experience community. 
It is our hope that this acts as a springboard for more and better involvement of people with lived experience of multiple and complex needs in public health research. We have explored a sensitive and challenging subject with Experts by Experience who challenged us to create opportunities for them to take the lead. We hope that as our Peer Research Network grows, other researchers can build on the peer research model we utilised in this study to shape their own research projects.

FLNG is one of twelve programmes linked across England funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, looking to influence the system nationally. A Core Partnership of Changing Lives (lead partner), Mental Health Concern and Oasis Community Housing lead the programme’s activity, for more information visit

Images courtesy of

Saturday 9 May 2020

This crisis has shown how many people were only just about managing

Mandy Cheetham, Research Associate from Teesside University, on the community response to the coronavirus crisis

I have been working as an embedded researcher at Larkspur House, a community project run by the charity Edberts House, funded by Big Lottery, to build happier, healthier and safer communities since October 2019. I started there, not long after it opened, to explore what difference the project is making, and fieldwork was well underway when COVID-19 struck. The project reluctantly had to take the decision to close and the groups and activities temporarily stopped. Like many others, I started working from home, feeling helplessly disconnected from people that I’d got to know, and wondering how everything was going.

A phone call from a colleague at 6pm on 30 March changed all that with an invitation to get involved in the multi-agency response to the COVID-19 crisis. Larkspur House was to morph into one of nine community hubs co-ordinated by Gateshead Council distributing food parcels, delivering prescriptions and offering support to people who are medically and socially vulnerable. I jumped at the chance, and since then, it has been something of a rollercoaster. We are a small, multi-disciplinary team, with complementary skills, talents and experience in an extremely busy hub. We phone people who have contacted the council for help to see what they need. In 4 weeks, we have delivered 250 food parcels to approximately 1000 people in the local community and three neighbouring estates. It’s important, exhausting, rewarding and at times frustrating work. It has revealed enormous generosity, neighbourliness, resilience, kindness and anxiety in the communities we serve. The crisis has also shown how many people were only just about managing day to day.

Since the lockdown started, I have listened to people who are fearful for their lives, worried about how they, their families and friends are going to manage through this crisis; the precariousness and embarrassment of people having to admit they are down to the last packet of pasta; people having to borrow from neighbours, family and friends; at the end of their resilience facing additional hurdles; people relying on Universal Credit, who’ve been sanctioned pre-lockdown and whose money has been stopped for 4 weeks during lockdown; the family with 4 children under 7 whose utility company cut off their gas supply leaving them without hot water or heating; the response of an unflappable team member who calmly and unquestioningly dropped off a food parcel and topped up the gas meter at 9pm on a Friday night to help a family through the weekend.

People who are routinely going out of their way to help people through this; pharmacists working flat out to process and deliver prescriptions, family members in touch with concerns about parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who they cannot help for fear of putting them at risk. The kindness and dependability of the volunteers from the estate who deliver daily packed lunches to children on free school meals, including on Good Friday and Easter Monday. The same volunteers who methodically planned, packed and delivered more than 300 craft packs to go out with donations of Easter eggs in the local area. The drivers and volunteers delivering the food; the unquestioning generosity of supermarket managers in local shops who I have approached for donations of bread, eggs, toiletries, nappies, baby wipes and fresh vegetables to include in the emergency boxes we distribute. The teachers, assistants and school staff looking after key workers’ children and children of families who need extra help. The humour of the Larkspur craft and natter group, formed by staff in response to being unable to meet weekly, so people can offer encouragement and support remotely, sharing tips, knitting hearts and NHS bears for patients and their families. People’s willingness to help where they can in creative and diverse ways; the unrelenting drive and ambition to help people through this awful, unprecedented crisis.

In such a short space of time, it has revealed so much of what can be achieved when we pull together, build on the trusting relationships and networks we have developed, sometimes over years, with respect, kindness, compassion, thoughtful leadership and careful co-ordination, non-judgemental and flexible approaches. It is, and continues to be a privilege to be part of this team. It couldn’t have happened in the way it has without the community members, staff and volunteers from Larkspur House whose nimble, agile response has made a tangible difference to local people. Relationships have been strengthened and cemented; bonds that will last.

Some people are saying the world has changed forever. I hope it is for the better. I hope the academic and research community has been able to show what a difference we can make when we work together, in collaboration with local communities, responsive voluntary organisations working alongside staff from local government, NHS, and education. Universities can claim to be part of a wider civic response, and at times like this, we can contribute in multiple ways. Whether our area of research is on vaccines, testing, contact tracing, epidemiology, modelling, food poverty, Universal Credit, welfare reform, nutrition or any other area of public health, there are multiple ways to be useful in the short, medium and long term. It involves working with others, as part of teams generating solutions together. We need to accept we do not have all the answers, we are part of a jigsaw of possible responses. That might mean moving out of our comfort zone, rolling up our sleeves and packing food parcels with colleagues and communities who will remember you were there with them when it mattered.

There are wider issues of course, longer term policy issues to focus our attention on, including policy issues to do with Universal Credit, welfare reform and its impact, which pushed people to the edge of coping before COVID-19 started. But for now, there are more pressing issues of food and prescriptions to deal with. Your local area will have its own responses and networks in place, formal and informal. If you’re shopping for others, that’s great. Can you safely check on neighbours around you? When you’re in the supermarket, foodbanks need your donations more than ever. Find out what they need. For the hubs, tinned meat, tinned fish, coffee, UHT milk, cereal, washing up liquid, shower gel and shampoo are useful. If you are in a position to donate, please do. Find out where your local voluntary organisations are helping and how you can support them. If you want to find out more about the charities involved in the Gateshead hubs, visit or

Friday 1 May 2020

Jerry-rigging, day chunking and comfy slippers: Coping with working from home

Posted by Jack Nicholls, Graduate Tutor, Northumbria University

I am a huge fan of Firefly. For the uninitiated, it’s a TV series centred on a rag-tag quasi-criminal crew, working for themselves on a tired but solid cargo spaceship, taking jobs as they can. It has a phenomenal amount to recommend it, and is rich and complex in terms of plot, dialogue and morality. Given that the ship serves as home, workspace, transport and social space, no-one discusses work-life balance. Maybe it’s not such an issue in sci-fi.

In the real world, most of our homes have over the last couple of months been 'jerry-rigged'* into offices, studio, workshops and lecture podiums. Some of us are sharing our new occupational spaces with family or flatmates with their own needs and pressures. Some of us are completely on our own, missing our colleagues. All possible permutations come with challenges and difficulties, and the one commonality is that there aren’t necessarily that many commonalities.

As the diversity of experiences became apparent, I decided to seek and compile a range of different coping strategies from colleagues in my department. What follows is the thematised synthesis of those colleagues’ input and ideas.

Getting writing (or anything else) done
My 'jerry-rigged' free-form workstation
  • Short bursts of focused concentration throughout the day - Pomodoro technique is a variant of this.
  • Daily goal of one substantial work task and one admin task
    • ....or a day given over wholly to one or the other
    • ....or a few small achievable goals.
  • Shutting emails / twitter/ phone off for allotted time periods.
  • Ending the day mid-sentence or with the next idea ready.
  • Content drafting or form/language editing when writing, but never both at the same time 

Structure and timing
  • Choose a daily time to start and definitely finish work, with regular breaks and small treats.
  • Differentiate between the working week and the evenings/weekends/(bank) holidays.
  • up on the 9-5... some are working in short bursts when able. 
  • Use your best available thinking time for the more complex/academic/difficult/thinky work (generally morning for me).
  • A ‘panic to do list’ - dump everything out of your head onto paper (work and otherwise) – then prioritise.
  • To-do-list for the next day – 3 things max.
  • Forcing yourself to do the worst job first - (known in some circles as ‘eat the frog’ – I can’t advise taking this literally ☹). 
  • Split tasks up to reduce boredom/weariness. 
  • If able, work early in the day on internet-reliant tasks (internet speed can slow in the afternoon).
  • Spread the admin tasks throughout the week.
  • Open the curtains in the morning, turn the lights on in the evening and then off before going to sleep - good for psychological rhythm.
  • Agree to morning video calls - it forces you to get dressed.
  • Clean and tidy up, either first or last thing - you will feel a sense of accomplishment and peace. 

  • Get dressed for work – not necessarily what you’d wear to the office/library/placement – but something that is different to your ‘comfy’ wear. When you're finished working get changed.
  • Alternatively...some find it freeing and comfortable to work in their pyjamas if they don’t have a Skype call.
  • Comfy slippers, but smart/casual wear for torso (just in case anyone Zooms, FaceTimes or Teams you).
  • Exercise at some point in the day – that could be anything – online pilates, weights, a stroll.
  • Don’t work excessive hours and be realistic about expectations (it will never all be done).
  • Get some fresh air – if you or one of your household are among the shielded, an open window will do.
  • Give yourself a bedtime and try observing some sleep hygiene.
  • Sing (or even dance) when you have a break and interact with pets if you have them.
  • Keep in regular contact with colleagues and friends, but also be prepared to turn off contact devices when you need to concentrate.
  • Keep your work space organised if possible – if space is limited, some people find it helpful to put all their work things on a tray, then it can be moved to wherever there is space, and quickly out of the away. 
  • Some find working in the same place suits them, others move around for variety, or depending on the task.
  • Switch the background on your Word document to something other than bright white – less strain on the eyes. Any pastel shade is good. 

Pickle & Missy failing to follow social distancing rules
These tips are diverse, and some contradict one another. This is neither a surprise nor a bad thing – academic staff, like anyone else, vary in their personal circumstances, geography, family situation, preferences and strengths. I don’t have caring responsibilities (rabbits aside) but am in a risky health category, so my time is possibly more flexible, but my ability to leave the house extra-limited. The way to look at this list is as a broad range of suggestions, and to take or try things that you think might work for you and your situation. It may be that some things work better under some circumstances than others, and there will be things here that just don’t work in your personal situation. Customise, reverse-engineer, and fit to your needs.

I’ll end where I started – with Firefly. The following exchange takes place after a tumultuous, dangerous escapade.
"We're still flying." 
"That's not much." 
"It's enough" 
Stay as safe as you can, and good luck.

*for those of a less nautical persuasion, 'jerry-rigged' or 'jury-rigged' means having temporary makeshift rigging. In this case my improvised workstation!

Melanie Gibson, Sarah Lonbay, Katie Haighton, Tim Rapley, Monique Lhussier, Natalie Foster, Sonia Dalkin, David Nichol, Julie-Anne Lowe, Kay Heslop, Peter Kruithof, Donna Carlyle

  1. "Firefly boxset cover" by Tom Mulrooney via, copyright © 2006: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)