Today, at long last, pubs will pull a pint for the first time in months. Hotels and B&Bs have been pulling off the dustsheets. The RAC predicts traffic congestion (in England, at least) as people are finally authorised to spend a night under a roof that is not their own.
Online traffic has been equally busy as much of the country looks for a summer holiday, or to be precise, a different location for the holiday which some have been enjoying since March.
Rick Stein’s West Country restaurant empire has not merely seen a resurgence of interest. ‘We have never seen numbers like that in our entire history,’ said Mr Stein’s son, Jack. It follows on from last month’s retail renaissance as stores such as Primark find themselves as busy as ever.
In short, millions of people are quite happy to put travel, leisure and pleasure ahead of any concerns about the coronavirus.
Officials might grumble when half a million cram a Dorset beach (Southend-on-sea pictured on June 24) in the middle of the working week, but many were simply enjoying the fruits of the furlough scheme
So why on earth do they have such viscerally contrasting views when it comes to doing something rather less hazardous: such as going to the office?
‘You must be joking!’ they shriek from their sunloungers. ‘Far too dangerous.’
The real danger, of course, is that this stay-at-home culture — which was supposed to be a short-term emergency measure — now becomes entrenched for good. If that happens, Britain’s place as a top tier global economy is over.
For the past few months, we have all been told to stay away from the workplace in order to ‘save’ the NHS. We have rightly and gladly done so. Now that the threat has passed, though, it is still seen as noble and even morally superior to keep on ‘working’ from home.
Urban pollution, we are told, is down to an all-time low. Everyone is getting more sleep. Airlines are having to rip up their entire business model as their principal cash cow, the business traveller, learns the art of the video conference.
And so the list of ‘positives’ goes on from those who would dearly love to see the tumble-weed rolling through Britain’s city centres.
Overlooked, it seems, is one great overarching negative: the British economy. If it is to survive in its present form, the commuting classes badly need to start commuting again.
For all the fluffy stuff about workers being ‘just as productive’ sitting at the kitchen table all day in our pyjamas, we all know it’s rot.
Throughout this lockdown, I have been travelling all over the country, reporting on the pandemic. Quite apart from all the NHS staff toiling away at the coalface, I have encountered some superb and dedicated public servants keeping the machinery of state going at all hours.
I have talked to factory operators and distributors working flat out to supply our healthcare teams with the PPE they need (and which, thanks to the Mail Force charity, so many have now received).
Quiet streets in the centre of Leicester after the introduction of a ‘local lockdown’ following a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus
I suppose I should have been delighted to find deserted roads and empty railway concourses along the way. Yet it is all thoroughly depressing.
For while some people have been busier than ever — notably the emergency services, the health and retail sectors, plus all those working frantically to keep their businesses afloat — I have found an awful lot of people just taking it easy.
And it is all happening under the approving gaze of the authorities. Officials might grumble when half a million cram a Dorset beach on the hottest day of the year — in the middle of the working week — but many of those I met there were simply enjoying the fruits of the furlough scheme.
Walking around Leicester this week, following a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus, I found some people afraid, some defiant.
But no one believed that the hazy, unworkable new local ‘lockdown’ imposed this week will make the slightest difference to the infection rate.
Of course, some people have always worked remotely. But millions of office jobs depend on a collegiate, mutually-supportive, interactive office environment with oversight, with access to colleagues and technology, the ability to train and learn and, above all, with the human dimension.
We might give it names like ‘the rat race’, and we might moan about the ‘rush hour’, but it is no accident that this much-mocked modus operandi has produced the most prosperous society in history. And it is now on the brink.
Train travel has gone as low as five per cent of pre-Covid numbers. The commercial property giant, Land Securities, reports that 90 per cent of its offices lie empty.
High streets, already denuded of retailers, have now lost those who once toiled in the offices above. If Britain waits until the autumn to resume some sort of office life, then the city centre as we know it may never recover.
It boils down to an intolerable contradiction. Here we have an administrative class who are very happy to let others pack the food, stack the shelves, sit at the tills, toil in the factories and keep the lights on.
Today on Super Saturday, at long last, pubs will pull a pint for the first time in months. The RAC also predicts traffic congestion (in England, at least) as people are finally allowed to spend a night under a roof that is not their own
They are very happy to go shopping, or queue at an airport, or cram the beach when the weather is nice, or to attend a demonstration.
But they — or their bosses — simply cannot countenance the thought of going back to their desks. For those whose jobs are not threatened by furlough or bankruptcy, including much of the public payroll, it’s a very happy new ‘work/life balance’.
But time’s up. White-collar Britain has simply got to follow the example of blue-collar Britain and get back to the workplace. It is not simply that the current situation is now creating a form of occupational apartheid, between the ‘frontline’ workforce and the ‘I’m special’ workforce.
There is a real risk that much of British business will start to ossify. And it is no use waiting for things to ‘get back to normal in September’, which currently seems to be the Government’s plan.
Suddenly, a substantial chunk of the workforce who have been on leave for six months will return en masse. At the first sneeze or cough in the canteen — let alone a confirmed infection — many will invoke their human right to revert to their pyjamas and kitchen table.
There needs to be a phased return, and it needs to start now.
Now, I fully accept that most people genuinely want to get back to work. Many of them cannot reasonably do so until they can send their children back to school. And they need not feel any guilt. Ministers may have allowed us to go to the pub or jump on a plane to Spain. Yet the official guidance remains the same: ‘Everyone should work from home unless they cannot work from home.’
That guidance simply has to change. And the Government is going to have to lead by example.
Look at the situation in Whitehall. The Department for Education employs 3,800 people. On one day this week, just 20 were in the building (according to one of them). Since they are all on the same floor, the lifts have been programmed to make just one stop.
The urgent task of this place is to get millions of children back to school. Much criticism has been heaped on the teaching unions. Yet where are the people driving that return to the classroom? On a laptop in the garden.
The chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, (above) pointed to a V-shaped recovery of the economy this week, but with one crucial caveat – it ‘depends on everyone getting back to work’
We can’t get everyone back to their desks and, of course, the vulnerable must be treated differently. There will need to be new shift patterns, one-metre distancing and, yes, reduced staffing. Many companies have plans in place already. So, for Heaven’s sake, let’s give it a go.
I have visited two Government buildings where they have managed to get significant numbers of people back to work: Downing Street and the London HQ of the NHS. Here and elsewhere, I have seen plenty of people in military uniform cheerfully going about their business. Now it’s time for the rest of Whitehall.
At present, the Government quarter is ghostly. The City of London is the same, despite an infection rate of zero per cent in the Square Mile. What pub will survive there, even if it can open up from today?
This week, the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, delivered a very important speech on our economic outlook. He pointed to a V-shaped recovery — a sharp bounceback — but with one crucial caveat. ‘That V-shaped recovery,’ he added, ‘depends on everyone getting back to work’.
And the data is troubling. Claims for Universal Credit have soared by 2.5 million, while 9 million workers have been furloughed, a further 2.5 million self-employed workers are on income support and 8 million are working fewer hours.
‘Taken together,’ said Mr Haldane, ‘this means that perhaps as much as half the UK workforce is currently either unemployed or underemployed. This, too, has no historical precedent.’
Indeed not. And it is absolutely essential we make that precedent a temporary one.
We hear a lot — rightly — about those industries, from aviation to theatre, facing closures and job losses. We hear much less about those people who are not about to lose their jobs, yet are pushing others over a cliff.
Take two corporate announcements this week. Upper Crust, the café chain which operates at railway stations all over Britain, says 5,000 jobs are at risk. The shirtmaker, TM Lewin, is going online-only, shutting down all 66 shops and shedding 600 jobs. Both of these companies are dependent on commuter footfall.
Upper Crust, the café chain which operates at railway stations all over Britain, says 5,000 jobs are at risk. Next week, the Pret a Manger chain is due to make an announcement. It won’t end with ‘Have a nice day’
But who needs to buy a coffee or a shirt when you can make a nice espresso in your dressing gown? Next week, the Pret a Manger chain is due to make an announcement. It won’t end with ‘Have a nice day’.
‘This mentality can’t go on forever. People have to stop getting used to this no-work work,’ says the former Conservative leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP. ‘The problem is that the Establishment has been frightening everyone to such a degree that they think they’ll die if they go back to work.
‘It will really hit hard when the furlough ends and we see two or three million lose their jobs.’
He wants his Government to change the message. ‘It’s all very well Boris standing in a hi-vis jacket and saying: ‘Build, build, build’,’ says Sir Iain, who ran Boris Johnson’s 2019 Tory leadership campaign, ‘but that is not going to save the economy. The Government has to tell people they must learn to live with Covid, take sensible precautions, protect those with co-morbidities and get everyone else in work.’
It is a view shared by the businessman Sir Rocco Forte. ‘The situation is completely crazy and the Government should get its own people back to work,’ says the hotelier who had the virus himself back in March. ‘It was very nasty flu but I am back to normal. We need to be realistic, not paranoid.’
It is vital that the nation starts to feel happy and confident again. Booking a table or a getaway certainly helps. But two stark realities are waiting round the corner: the virus is not going away and the economy is on the brink. At least we can still do something about one of them.