In this most unusual of times, last experienced in circumstances that won’t be remembered by anyone alive – not even the redoubtable Captain Tom – in 1919, there is, as there was then, a wide perception that ‘Things Will Never Be the Same Again’. If you are not already busy doing elaborate jigsaw puzzles (we are fixated over Gozzoli’s Cavalcata dei Medici), or learning the intricacies of playing ‘GO’, or staring at the progress of online wine auctions, or laying down a run of raised vegetable beds, you could use the large swathes of unoccupied hours in your day to compose your own list of predictions of lasting changes to look forward to (or not) in post-Covid Britain.
In any changes there will be winners and losers and it’s probably easier to disregard the relative benefits of your predictions. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the decades that followed the 1919 Lockdown also followed the world’s bloodiest war, after which the 1920s in Britain were characterised by a perverse flippancy – flappers, short frocks, Vile Bodies, anyone for Agatha Runcible – while also spawning new movements in the arts: Bauhaus, Cubism, the Futurists, some significant, others not.
My prediction is that there will be changes. Most, in my view, will be beneficial, but I don’t own an oil company or an airline. Some changes may last; most will not.
Food: People are rediscovering the pleasure and sense of fulfilment to be found in inventive home cooking from scratch. They are eschewing the ready-meal and the take-away, preferring to have control over the raw ingredients, and often saving money. This trend may also encourage people to eat out less often, but better. It will impact the restaurant trade, already floundering at the rubbish end – the thousands of faceless pizza-pasta, samie-jamie, chewy burger, rotten value eating houses. There will be massive closures and loss of jobs. We will also have reverted to the traditional habit of eating at the dining table as a family, with interchange of ideas and experiences.
Pubs have been savaged by the lockdown, with unscrupulous Pubcos who own a lot of tenanted pubs putting the boot in by insisting on getting their rents. The Pubcos deserve their bad reputation, and it is notoriously hard to make any kind of living as one of their tenants in normal times, but these big property companies now have no compunction in squeezing any drop of rent they can out of the tenants. They have few long-term expectations of their tenants’ chances, thus mutual loyalty isn’t a factor. Expect to see a sharp drop in the number of pubs still open when Lockdown is over and, with luck, a few bankrupt Pubcos.
Culture: Surveys indicate that Lockdown has led to the rediscovery of reading; sales of physical books are up. This will, presumably, benefit authors and, regrettably, Jeff Bezos; but, once they are allowed to reopen, the revival of the independent bookshops will gather momentum.
Households: After spending time in a more intimate relationship with their home, householders will be more aware of the waste and detritus they are generating, more conscious of what they can and should recycle.
Travel: A significant number of people have found that they have been able to do a lot more work at home than they had previously thought possible, cutting down substantially on the need to travel many miles to work every day. Virtual meetings through Zoom are probably more efficient than physical meetings, with less waffle and less time wasted, with the huge benefit of no travel being involved. It will be found that whatever personal interaction is necessary can be done in two days a week, not five.
This will create a greater resistance to excessive travel by air and by road, especially now people have experienced cleaner air, and a quieter environment. I predict a rise in holidays taken within Britain and greater demand for non-fossil fuel vehicles. The demise of air travel will lead to innumerable and substantial ecological benefits.
The BBC, which in the absence of a sitting parliament, has brilliantly carried out the function of holding the government to account, will be less vulnerable to government ambitions to curtail its resources.
A new-found habit of daily exercise will persist, bringing better health and less dependence on health services.
And above all, the NHS will be appreciated as it hasn’t been since its inception. The public’s former attitude of taking the Service for granted and expecting all things at all times will be modified to one of co-operation and respect. Any government ambitions to reduce the scale of the NHS or to rely on external bodies to undertake some of its traditional functions will be abandoned.
And I promise to review this list a year from now, if we’re not still in Lockdown and I haven’t croaked.