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14 April, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

Living under the shadow of a pandemic

Will vaccination successes return the United Kingdom to pre-quarantine?

Around 32 million Britons have now received their first Covid-19 vaccination – more than half the adult population, and overwhelmingly the biggest proportion in any large industrialised country. And after having the worst infection record and the most new cases in Europe for most of last year, Britain now has fewer new infections than anywhere except Portugal. As a result, the government is now planning a rapid reopening of the economy and the restless population is hoping for the steady relaxation of lockdown restrictions. To many people it feels as though things are returning to normal.

  But what is the new normal? For more than a year people have been urged to work from home where possible. Millions have done so – and millions of employers have found this is cheaper and often almost as effective. As a result, city centres have been deserted, commuter trains have been empty and companies across Britain have closed their city centre offices and changed the pattern of employment. Many people have said that they feel isolated working from home, and without interaction with their colleagues are less able to think creatively. But many also say they welcome not having to travel, and would like to continue working from home at least one or two days a week.

  As a result travel patterns will almost certainly change. Public transport has suffered massive losses over the past year: trains have been running with less than 20 per cent of the passengers they used to carry, and buses are almost empty. Many services will be cut if passengers do not return – and fears of Covid are still strong. There are fewer cars on the roads, but traffic congestion is no less: in an attempt to encourage cycling, main roads have been narrowed to make room for bicycles and residential streets have been blocked. Cycling has not increased significantly, despite hopes of a green revolution in transport, and road restrictions have angered motorists.

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  More significantly, people are moving out of Britain’s big cities. Thousands of families have left London and settled in the countryside, especially if they are able to work from home.  House prices have fallen in the cities, but risen in the countryside and around the coast, where many people now want to live. Does this mean the death of Britain’s cities? Certainly thousands of restaurants and pubs will close forever. Fast food outlets will also have fewer customers, and city centre shops will never regain their lost trade, as online buying has seen a massive increase. And when fewer people come into city centres, all the main cultural and civic activities will suffer. Fewer people will visit museums, zoos and galleries. Theatres, which have been closed for months, will find it hard to attract audiences again. Cinemas will close. Last year the government announced £1.57 billion in emergency funds to help the arts survive, and more was announced last week. But it will still be hard for many galleries and theatres to reopen.

  Life will also change in other ways. Health will become one of the top public concerns, with funds needed for more scientific research and the building of new plants to manufacture vaccines. More doctors and nurses will be recruited. And mental health, which has been severely affected by the lockdowns, will need a much bigger budget to cope with the big increase in mental illness. Money will also be needed to retrain hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs have been permanently eliminated by the pandemic. Britain will have to adapt swiftly to an economy where tourism, services and entertainment play a much smaller role.

  The overall economy, like those in most western countries, has been severely hit. It will take years to repay the massive debts the government has incurred in the huge grants it has made to support those workers who were temporarily laid off during the pandemic. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), has already announced big rises in some taxes, and many more are expected. Britain’s economy has suffered its worst peacetime recession with a huge fall in output. Whether it can recover quickly is unclear: thanks to the vaccination programme, lockdown may be ended faster than elsewhere in Europe, which would give Britain a competitive advantage. But that could be offset by the rising cost of Brexit, which is already making it more difficult and more expensive to export goods to the European Union.

  The pandemic has masked the earlier bitter divisions over Brexit. But it has also made Britain’s political relations with the EU worse, especially after the European attempts to ban the export of vaccines to Britain. This caused massive anger, and led many people to denounce the EU and give thanks that Britain was no longer a member. The current poor relations with Brussels are unlikely to improve swiftly.  

  Covid has also had a big effect on British domestic politics. Thanks to the successful vaccination programme, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has recovered some of his lost authority and the Conservative government is now ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Labour has suffered because its new leader, Keir Starmer, decided to support the government on many of the emergency laws on covid, and this has made him less effective as an opposition leader. But politics in general have suffered. Many people have lost faith in government. Parliament no longer commands much public support. Politicians are seen as irrelevant to the big issues now facing the country. And social changes, especially the growing row over race relations and the treatment of ethnic minorities, are dominating the news and will continue to do so. Like America, Britain is facing social division, turbulence and a collapse of national unity.

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One effect of the emergency measures to deal with the Brexit crisis is that Britain’s tradition of freedom and democracy has come under threat. Many laws were passed without much public debate, and the changes were so rapid that ordinary people became confused over what was allowed or not allowed. There are fears now that the government will continue to pass laws without public debate or consultation. This has also severely undermined trust in the police. They have had the difficult job of enforcing lockdown restrictions which neither they nor the public have fully understood. Together with anger at the alleged police discrimination against ethnic minorities, it may be difficult for Britain to maintain social harmony in the future with growing distrust of the police.

   To many people, the long-term effects of Covid seem bleak and damaging to Britain’s way of life. But some positive things have come from the pandemic. For many people, religion has been a comfort and support and religious leaders have gained greater public support. The spirit of social solidarity and good-neighbourliness has been encouraged by the way people came together to help each other. Businesses have adopted a more people-friendly approach to their employees. And the importance of friends and family has been underlined to everyone who has been forced to stay apart from each other. Oddly however, the pandemic is also likely to result in a marked fall in the birth rate. Instead of encouraging more sex between those locked in at home, the past year has seen a widespread decision to postpone having children.  

  Much of life will slowly return to how it was – though no one will be able to travel abroad for a long time or will feel safe to do so. But the general mood of optimism and faith in material progress and prosperity has taken a severe knock. The shadow of the pandemic and the tragic death toll will remain over the country for many years. 

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