Well. There seems so much to question, from why Professor Ferguson was seen as sufficiently credible to shut the country down, to the published stats on numbers of people catching it and the numbers dying from it or with it, which are two different things.
Let’s do some crystal-ball-gazing. What changes might happen? Most times, change is incremental, and the easiest way to predict the future is to say it’ll look a bit like the present but with flying cars. Sometimes you get an unexpected event that causes a step-change, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Remember Glasnost and Perestroika? Maybe the virus is one of those Black Swan events, so let’s speculate.
Air travel might well become less popular, and that would have a knock-on in the supply chain starting with plane manufacturers and onto their suppliers of components. Some airlines will likely go bust.
People will still want similar things though – As Chaucer wrote, ‘thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’, or package tours anyway. Might it be Broadstairs instead of Barbados this year?
People will still want the personal freedom to travel that comes with car ownership, and the safety of not sharing your travel space with others. Cars might get taxed a bit more, but that’s been happening for years. Car travel has been much less used during the crisis, but it might well resurge in the aftermath. And with petrol at £1 a litre, and 70p of that going in tax and VAT, I can see the price rising again as demand picks up and the millions of gallons sitting in oil tankers finds its way into our tanks.
Public transport might be a bit less popular, especially the notoriously crowded London Tube. At the time of the 2012 Olympics a series of walking maps were produced, one for each main London terminus, showing people how easy it was to walk instead of taking the Tube. Maybe HS2 will be found unnecessary and Heathrow’s reduced air traffic will obviate the need for a third runway? In practice, I suspect both projects have just enough momentum to keep going.
Working from home has caught on, with new videoconferencing applications becoming popular. You get more out of a face-to-face meeting than a remote meeting, but it looks likely that people will sacrifice that extra in order to avoid the commute. Demand for office space might drop off. Manufacturing has to be done wherever the expensive kit is, but Marketing, Accounts, Call Centres could all be done from home. I read somewhere that Directory Enquiries have been using home-based staff for some years, and your doctor might be less inclined to see you face to face if he can diagnose you on Zoom.
Paying £9k to attend a university might not seem such value for money if all the courses are taught online. Foreign students pay more, up to £16k a year, and if their numbers drop off, that would give the sector a cashflow crisis.
People have been buying food differently. Instead of popping out to buy tonight’s supper, we’ve gone back to the weekly shop. Unless they are totally incompetent, the big supermarkets should have been cleaning up these past weeks. How many special offers have you seen on the shelves recently? It would be interesting to know who got the contract for all those plastic screens, now there’s an investment opportunity.
People might become more curious about where the things they buy have come from. If there is a reaction against goods from halfway around the world, UK farming and manufacturing might do well. One of the reasons that stuff gets made elsewhere is that it’s cheaper, even after transport costs, so any consumer reaction in favour of buying local would have to be strong enough to overcome the need to pay more. Maybe we’ll demand better labelling of the origin of our food. That ‘UK/EC’ graphic is not much of a guide, I’ve seen it on lamb labelled as ‘from the UK/New Zealand’, places that are only twelve thousand miles apart.
Security might be a factor. Shorter supply chains, local sourcing of components, making the things critical to our security locally. We no longer face the U-boat menace but the strategic rationale is similar. These are not personal decisions but political ones, so changes here are (IMVHO) less likely.
These are my guesses, you’ll have your own ideas, but Yoda was right, ‘hard to see, the future is’. One thing has emerged though, and I think it’s a bad thing.
There is a tendency to use the virus as a pretext for existing policy ideas. If you thought Brexit was a bad idea, it’s a great time to get on the media saying that the virus proves we should not leave the EU. If you believe in Climate Change, similarly. Already there are people sounding off that there is to be a ‘new normal’ and their idea of this new normal corresponds closely to how they wanted the world to look before all this happened. Funny, that.
There will be time to question how the virus started, how and when it spread, what the best countermeasures are, and what we all should have done. I believe that time is not now. We are in the middle of a crisis, and our leaders have, for reasons that they must have found convincing, chosen a path. Don’t know about you, but I’m unconvinced that this is the best path in this best of all possible worlds.
However, the sequence ‘Order, Counterorder, Disorder’ is a real worry. You might look at current events and think we’re already in the Disorder stage, and I couldn’t possibly comment. I think we now have to take the Magnus Magnusson approach of ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’.
But the people who use the virus to support their pet projects do concern me. To use a crisis that has so far caused the deaths of a third of a million people as a stepping stone for your pre-existing political aims, seems to me to be akin to dancing on the freshly dug graves of the victims. Let’s be better than that. Let’s call out the people who push their not-so-hidden agendas as the ghoulish folk they are.
There will be time, once this is all over, to go back to normal, debating the other big issues of our age, from party politics to national goals to that climate thingy. But not now. Anyone who promotes their way of doing things as the ‘new normal’ is out of order.
© text & images Jim Walshe 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file