In Sunday’s Observer, the paper’s chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley related how, a few weeks ago, a group of civil servants at the Cabinet Office were “told to find a way of re-opening nightclubs in a coronavirus-safe way.” Although they were, in Rawnsley’s words, a “bright group”, they couldn’t overcome the fundamental — one might say fatal — flaw at the heart of the exercise. “The socially distanced nightclub is a contradiction in terms”, as Rawnsley put it, adding, “Nightclubs, by their very nature, are all about social intimacy.”
Rawnsley proceeded to explain that he was telling this story “to illustrate just how very desperate the government has been to release Britain from every aspect of lockdown and return us to something that resembles the pre-coronavirus world as closely as possible.” Our leaders, as he put it, “dreamed of returning to that prelapsarian age in which you could eat out with your family, go drinking with your mates, commute to work, celebrate a religious festival or jet off to a holiday somewhere reliably sunny without having to worry about catching or spreading a deadly disease. While never quite saying it explicitly, their ambition has essentially been to get everything open again.”
This indeed seems to be the case, and it is typical of a government made up largely of inadequate ministers who are only in place because of their enthusiasm for the insanity of Brexit, and who are led by the laziest example of a Prime Minister in living memory, that the nuances of the challenges facing us — and the unexpected opportunities for a less chaotic and more environmentally sustainable world — are being ignored.
Johnson doesn’t have the will, the energy — or, almost certainly, the ability — to engage in anything resembling a vision for the future, and he is supported in this by his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, a man so convinced of his own superiority over everyone else that he seems intent on destroying the civil service and replacing the entire bureaucracy of government with a one-man operation — himself. This was a dementedly arrogant notion before the virus hit, and now, of course, it seems nothing less than suicidally reckless.
Moreover, while the illusion of a return to normality has been created, with pubs and “non-essential” shops reopening, with households allowed to mingle, and with our roads almost as polluted and gridlocked as they were before the virus, the glaring truth that undermines Johnson’s desperate wishes is that economic activity is down — massively — and there is no wonder cure.
Since the coronavirus lockdown began, belatedly, on March 23, I have been watching London closely — and, particularly, the West End and the City, the two areas hardest hit by it. I’ve been doing so as part of my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, which has involved me, since 2012, taking photos every day on bike rides throughout the capital, and while the West End is not quite the ghost town it was in the first few months of lockdown, when I would cycle around the familiar sights of the West End — Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Soho and Covent Garden — and often see no more than a few dozen other people, the thousands of people who are now shopping and eating and drinking in the West End on a daily basis are just a fraction of those who did so before the lockdown — and, most crucially, are just a fraction of those required to keep the West End financially viable.
Foreign tourists are not the only people missing from the West End. Tourists from across the UK also used to visit the capital in droves — often to see West End shows — but the entire live cultural world has been shuttered since the lockdown began, with live music suffering a much as theatre, and, in any case, no one wants to travel to London from across the country by public transport, whether by train or by plane.
Looking at the bigger global picture, the blunt truth is that a shattered airline industry has found itself unable to entice people back on board — either to visit the UK, which, like almost everywhere on earth, is massively dependent on tourism, or, for Britons, to visit their familiar Mediterranean haunts. In the former case, people from other countries cannot have failed to notice that the UK — and England in particular — has the highest rate of excess deaths in the world, and is not a safe destination, while for Brits wishing to go abroad, the government’s pro-flying rhetoric hit a wall when the realities of quarantine intruded.
For anyone who cares about humanity’s future, the end of unfettered, promiscuous international tourism is, environmentally, absolutely necessary and long overdue, as I have written about before, but adapting to the changes will, of course, be a painful process. However, there is no magic wand to get us out of this mess, however much Boris Johnson wishes otherwise.
No going back to the office
To add to these woes, another key component of London’s economy has also disappeared — the office workers who populated the West End, and who, of course, were also essential to economic activity in the City of London (and its trading cousin, Canary Wharf), which are still largely the ghost towns they have been since the lockdown first began.
As part of the drive to return to pre-virus life, Boris Johnson set August 1 as the date when companies can ask their workers to come back to their desks, but as the Guardian noted last week, in an article entitled, ‘Companies ready to defy Boris Johnson’s planned return to work’, many of the UK’s biggest businesses were “sticking to home working arrangements or delaying a partial return until September at the earliest”, and in many cases 2021.
Google and NatWest, for example, are not planning to have staff return to offices until 2021, with the Guardian describing their decisions as showing “signs of a permanent shift in working culture”, and other firms showing reticence are Facebook, which “has not laid out its plans for reopening its three London offices to its 3,000 staff”, while “other multinationals including Vodafone and publishing firm Pearson are expected to keep employees at home until next year.”
As the Guardian also noted:
Two major employers dealt a blow to the government’s hopes of an office return on Thursday, with travel company Tui announcing that it was shutting high street stores and moving 630 of the workers affected into a home-working unit. Lloyds Banking group also announced on Thursday that it was reviewing the amount of office space it uses as it admitted that working from home had made it “less reliant on office space.”
As the Guardian’s research established, “September, when schools are expected to open again, is being viewed by many firms as a natural restart, once parents are no longer solely responsible for childcare”, with PwC, for example, the massive accounting and consultancy firm (aka PricewaterhouseCoopers), aiming “to have more than 50% of its workforce back in its offices by the end of September.”
As the Guardian explained, “Remote working was hastily introduced by British companies in March, but has generally been viewed as a success, thanks to the availability of high-speed internet and video services such as Zoom. As a result, few of the firms which in pre-pandemic times had thousands of workers in their offices are rushing to bring people back under one roof, despite the installation of hand-sanitiser stations, one-way systems and limits to the number of people who can travel in a lift.”
Although the banking sector in particular has been trying to find ways to ensure that workers can return to their offices safely, with Goldman Sachs, for example, “check[ing] the temperature each day of its 1,000 London staff who have returned out of a total in the capital of 6,000”, as it also considers “offering its employees regular Covid-19 tests”, even the banks already bringing workers back “aren’t expecting to welcome back more than 50% of workers this year”, according to Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, “because of the need for physical distancing”, and fears about transport. As the Guardian added, “More than half a million people usually work in the Square Mile financial district, the vast majority of whom commute in on public transport.”
For further information, see the Guardian’s companion article, ‘Return to work: a sector-by-sector look at the plans of England’s major employers’, in which Barclays explained that it is also “weighing up its needs for office space”, with Jes Staley, the bank’s chief executive, stating, “We are going to think about our real estate mix, given the lessons that we’ve learned.” At the start of lockdown, Staley, famously, said, “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time”, and its current plans don’t involve bringing “the bulk of its 50,000 UK staff back to the office until at least the end of September”, in addition to the 20,000 employees already working in branches, call centres and its trading desk in Canary Wharf.
For other companies’ approaches, see this Evening Standard article.
So what next?
According to research conducted by recruitment firm Robert Walters, and reported by This Is Money, of 5,000 people interviewed who have been working from home, “[o]nly 13 per cent … want to go back to the office full-time”, while “[t]he remaining 87 per cent of employees want more flexibility to work remotely”, and “21 per cent would rather never go back to the office.”
Robert Walters also surveyed “2,000 companies around the world, including the UK”, and found that 44 per cent of UK companies are “considering a reduction in the size of their premises”, because “[r]emote working, aided by Zoom conference calls, has been judged a success” by businesses “who are now questioning the need for huge office buildings.”
Tom Stevenson, an investment director at Fidelity International, said, “For many office workers, and their employers, the lockdown in March was an eye-opener. The ease with which work could be transplanted from office to home surprised many, and the few hours a day we’ve gained back in place of commuting are very welcome. For some, work will never be the same again.”
He added, “The death of the office has probably been exaggerated because we are naturally social beings. But the new approach will be much more flexible and varied. And few will complain about that.”
Let’s hope that’s the case, as the end to overcrowded rush hour commuter journeys should have happened years ago, but didn’t happen because of a combination of controlling employers and employees fearful of being lonely and isolated if they didn’t work in an office.
If office work continues to be spurned, it will be a blow for those businesses dependant on crowds of workers at lunchtime and after work, but the emptying out of unnecessary offices, and the reduction in tourists supporting overpriced retail outlets, ought to deal a long-overdue blow to the greed of the real estate rental sector, hopefully leading to new and as yet unconceived options for what might be possible in an emptier West End. Meanwhile, those who continue to work from home — whether on a full time or a part time basis — ought to enable independent businesses where they live to continue to thrive, as has been the case since lockdown began.
I don’t mean to sound flippant about any of this. I understand that the chaos that the lockdown has caused to the economy is hugely damaging to many, many people, but the old way of living was unsustainable, however much we had been encouraged to think that that wasn’t the case, as we hoovered up the world’s resources, and gorged ourselves in numerous ways that contributed perilously to the emissions that are heating up the planet in a life-threatening manner — not sometime in the future, but now.
The virus has given us a chance to change our behaviour before it’s too late. The question now is the extent to which we can genuinely embrace that opportunity, and to behave with vision, humility and compassion, and a recognition of the potential enormity of the damage caused by our tendency to self-absorption, and a dangerous sense of entitlement.