“I knew it, we are in here for another 3 weeks” was the cry from most living rooms on Thursday at 5pm as the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, took to the podium to tell a watching nation that the lockdown measures were working but that it was too early to lift them. By the way, who would have thought that 12 million people would tune in daily to watch a government minister, alongside scientific and medical experts, talking through a series of graphs and tables, whilst answering the same questions that they dealt with on the night before? And, yet, viewers are 4 million more than watched the ‘Call The Midwife’ Christmas special – it’s a strange world we are inhabiting right now.
On the same day, the Treasury issued the fourth update of its Job Retention Scheme – the third having been issued only a week earlier. The main two announcements were that the portal for initial furlough applications would be opening on 20th April and that the qualifying date for employment was now 19th March and not 28th February, as previously. Many BIDs have furloughed staff and, if they are quick off the mark when the portal opens, they may get April’s grant before the month-end, thereby easing some cashflow concerns. Make a diary note to go onto the portal now!
Only 24 hours later, the Treasury made a fifth announcing that the furlough scheme would be extended to the end of June. This may provide an early indication of the governments’ views of the likely immediate future.
To date in this emergency, the sciences that have framed much of the debate have been health (“the longer that people stay at home, the faster that the virus is defeated”) and economics (“every day that the country stays locked-down, the economy worsens and more businesses will fail”). Both are true and, yet, their conclusions are at odds. In the last week, social scientists have started to enter the discussion, stating that the views and intentions of the consumer will need to play a part. In a major study conducted by King’s College London and pollsters Ipsos Mori, over 2,500 people between the ages of 17 and 75 were surveyed. Over 90% supported the government’s lockdown measures and wanted them to continue, whilst 87% were following the social distancing guidance either “entirely” or “nearly all of the time” and were prepared to continue to do so for as long as necessary. On Friday, a further study by YouGov found that only 9% of Britons wanted life to return to “normal” after the Coronavirus outbreak is over. That being the case, one might conclude that, if the economists were to suggest that the local cinema should reopen in order that it survives, the medical profession would warn that the action might risk a viral resurgence, and the social scientists would point out that, even if it did re-open the cinema would likely be worse off as it would need to un-furlough staff, increase operational costs, in order to play to an empty auditorium. How employees and visitors want to emerge from their enforced period of isolation will need to feature in the thinking of BIDs as they develop plans for the eventual re-opening of their commercial areas.
International experiences will be relevant. In Spain, some workers are starting to return to factories and construction jobs whilst most shops and services remain closed. In Italy some bookshops, laundries, stationers and childrens’ clothes stores are trading again, alongside forestry workers and those involved in the manufacture of IT equipment. In Austria, small shops, DIY stores and garden centres are already back in business ahead of a total re-opening on 2nd May. Schools will be first to re-open in France. Experience from elsewhere will advise government as it prepares to ease restrictions and it also helps BIDs in planning ahead.
Meanwhile, we remain stubbornly locked behind our front doors; determined to remain strong in traditional, British ‘stiff upper lip’, style. We may be eating a bit too much, probably drinking more than we should, and not exercising as much as usually recommended, but we have reinvented the habit of gathering together as one community around our TV sets – rather like our ancestors grouped around their radios during the war – to gourge on the daily briefings from Downing Street. Perhaps it will only be when we grow tired of the graphs, tables and repetitive questions that we think about venturing outside again and returning to what is almost certain to be a “new normal”.
Meanwhile, keep safe, stay at home and carry on watching.