Today, in a press conference, Boris Johnson laid out his ‘roadmap’, ‘so we can get back to something close to normal life’. Yes, we have a date when we can have our eyebrows done (August 1), but we also have a day when employers can suggest we travel back into the office (also August 1).
Unfortunately for Boris’ map though, searches on google from panicked people not wanting to return to the office, and looking for information on what they can do if they don’t feel safe to go back, have been rocketing all morning. Anecdotally too, most people I’ve spoken to are in no rush to go back to work. Because it’s not just work (and whether you trust your employer to carry out all the measures required), it’s the commute, the lifts, the busy corridors and shops. All of which we’ve become conditioned (via scientific evidence) to see as red flags. (If you're amongst those people, you can read our expert lawyer's advice on what to do about that, here)
For many of us, yet again, we’re starting to panic that the economy – specifically economies that benefit from us all being in the office, like shops, train companies and oil – is being put before science. And that means it’s being put before our health.
Rounding off his speech with a sentence that probably sounded better on paper, the Prime Minister said that the government was ‘Hoping for the best, but planning for the worst’ with this new plan.
Worryingly Mr Johnson talked extensively about his fears of a bad winter and a second spike – the government, he said, would keep Nightingale Hospitals open until March next year, and provided an extra £3bn of funding to try and get the NHS for the winters. He also talked about increased powers to make local shutdowns where necessary.
Hearing that, and then a smooth segue into the government’s plans to drop the ‘work from home if you can’ advice – and put the decision back into the hands of employers – was not what most of us wanted to hear. Mr Johnson said he was putting the responsibility back with employers, who should consult with employees about coming back only if they could make offices covid-safe.
His announcement also comes in the context of Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance said he saw no reason to change the working from home advice, yesterday. Hearing science contradict the government is a sure fire way to uneasiness.
Sir Patrick told the Commons science and technology committee: ‘Of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it's easy to do. I think a number of companies think it's actually not detrimental to productivity. And in that situation, there's absolutely no reason I can see to change it.’
But change it he did, this morning. Coming straight out of the ‘winter worries’, Johnson said: ‘I strongly believe we should also hope for the best, looking ahead with optimism.’ Adding that the timetable was, again, all changeable should a spike occur, he said it was ‘Important to give people hope and to give business confidence.’
It’s the constant link between that hope and business confidence that has made many of uneasy.
It feels like the government is panicking about the economy in a way they didn’t panic quick enough about locking us all down (reports have said closing down one week earlier could've saved 20,000 people).
In the days after it was announced the UK is rebounding more slowly economically than expected, the message from the government quickly changed this week into one of us getting back to work. The message was made clear by various members of the Cabinet being pictured parading in and out of Pret this week (in various face-coverings and none) for photo opportunities: We need to get back to normal.
We have to be careful of course. So many jobs and lives depend on the economy recovering to the best of its ability. And it’s a privilege that many of us are able to work from home. As well as the NHS, delivery drivers, supermarket workers, postal staff and more have become the new heroes in our lives. And when it comes to shop workers who are also facing those commutes and challenges already, none of us want those jobs to be lost.
But the economy rebounding slower perhaps tells us something other than WE NEED TO GET BACK TO SHOPS NOW GET BACK IN THE OFFICE! It tells us that, actually, people weren’t as buzzing for ‘Independence Day’ (as Boris tried to make happen) as they thought. Yes there were a few angry eyes pointed at a busy Soho and some people slagged off some people for going to Primark, but have you been back to the shops constantly? Do you feel back to normal? Have you stopped ordering online where you can? Or arranging restaurant and pub meet ups with the regularity that you used to enjoy them?
If the statistics around economic recovery are anything to go by, I’d say most of us aren’t. Hell, some people are even still doing Zoom quizzes.
Have we as a nation got collective anxiety and just need to push on through? Well, first, yes maybe and secondly, I’d argue it’s a fair anxiety. We have some of the worst death statistics in the world, our Prime Minister got covid weeks after boasting about shaking hands and our scientists repeatedly keep counteracting what the government have said. The government’s own staff didn’t follow the rules (we’re still looking at you Dominic Cummings), many people are still in mourning – and furious at what happened in care homes - , the cabinet can’t even agree on when and where you should wear a face mask.
And if we agree that it’s fair that we’re all worried, then I think it’s fair to say that forcing and pushing isn’t the best way to make people feel better.
Most of us are sick of the government making everything our responsibility in a time of crisis, and ironically, have instead decided that, to be honest, they're onto something... complete personal responsibility is the way forward. And for many of us that means ignoring the government’s advice, and keeping ourselves safe by drawing our own lines around ourselves and our families. If they won’t listen to the scientists, then we will.
As much as this government loves to push the responsibility away, there are better ways they could encourage growth - for one, by encouraging confidence. There’s not much of that around at the moment. Ultimately, if businesses should look to anyone to help them, it’s No 10, and not our pockets, in the hope that an £8 takeaway baguette from Pret (delicious as they are) is going to help anything – but the pace of a second wave.