Lockdown – reflections at the end of week 17
Such has been the disruption to daily life that we have experienced during lockdown that it has become difficult to tune in to passing of time and the customary signs of the progression of time through the year. This was highlighted this morning by the news that today, the centenarian Colonel (formerly Captain) Tom will meet someone only a few years younger than himself at Windsor Castle today where the younger of this sprightly pair will dub him the only knighthood to have been conferred since the start of the lockdown. Whilst the sense of time will have been distorted by the huge media coverage of his walk and hundredth birthday and followed by his rapid disappearance from our screens after his landmarks had been achieved, it seems an age ago that he was determinedly walking his way to his goal and national treasure status.
The difficulty in tracking time is made greater by the absence of the usual pegs in the ground during the year which we all have in our lives. Whether it be events at work or work itself, school terms, birthdays, holidays, sporting events, local shows or any of the many other regular fixtures in our lives, they have all been compromised or made impossible in recent months. I suspect that it is not just lockdown conditions which have brought about the disruption to our sense of time-how we will feel time in the future and how we use our time have become components of the exploration of what will be the new normal which is going on at the moment.
So what indications of what will be the new normal can we drive from this week’s announcements? If we start with the Office for Budget Responsibility, its vision of the new normal is pretty grim. Its report combined hyperbole-the deepest recession for 300 years-with notable understatement-the pandemic has “materially altered” the UK’s public finances, whilst setting out a vison of spending cuts and tax rises with a worst case scenario of unemployment reaching 4m. Whether or not they prove to be pessimistic in the detail, it is clear that once the furlough scheme is unwound, unemployment will rise and that the economic help provided and still to be provided will have to be paid for. The real question mark seems to be the period over which that repayment will be made.
An element within the OBR’s report was how quickly a vaccine can be made available. This week’s news that hackers associated with the Russian government have been attempting to steal research information tends to suggest that, in one respect at least, the new normal will look much like the old one.
The new normal would also appear to be the subject of wrangling between the government and its scientific advisers. We may get more clarity from today’s announcement by the Prime Minister, but at the moment we have suggestions from No 10 that we should all go back to work whilst official policy, supported by the scientific advisers remains to work from home if you can. Whilst we need to recognise the difficulties in balancing Covid focussed health requirements against the effects of prolonged economic downturn, it is regrettable that confusing advice and U-turns appear to be part of the new normal in a time where considered and consistent leadership is needed.
It seems likely that the prime minister will, amongst other things, urge people to resume commuting which would be good news for a variety of businesses including train companies, for landlords and for hard pressed businesses who rely on supplying food and services to those who commute to work. How positively people will respond to his promptings remains to be seen, and will be a strong indicator as to the extent to which people’s approach to where and how they work has already taken irreversible steps towards new patterns of working and with it a new sense of time, how we use it and how we mark its passing.