We were in Annecy and the world had just become a year older.  I looked up at the mountains though and saw that nothing had changed since the last time I’d looked at them, in the previous year - the night before. Nothing changed in the millions of years before we started going there either. The sun still rose over the same mountains and set in the same place. They cast the same shadows. The lake remains an ever present feature in the valley lying at their foot.  Of course that is not quite true.  If we were to go back, say, 100,000 years, we would find the mountains to be very slightly taller and the shadows they cast to be slightly more jagged.  But the change, the erosion of the mountains, takes place so slowly, that it is undetectable to the human eye. Other changes take place more obviously - the trees growing on the mountain-sides change colour with the seasons, mature, grow old and finally die.  The cows go up to their mountain pastures in the Spring and descend again in October when it gets too cold and the grass doesn't grow sufficiently well to nourish them.

Just at the moment, of course, we are in what feels like a time of great change. Certainly, things have actually changed over the last 7 weeks because we have been largely confined to our houses with communication between us and our friends by Skype or Zoom.  Our soap operas are running out of episodes.  Even that old war-horse, the Archers, is broadcasting listeners favourite episodes form the last 60 or so years.  All of the soaps though seem increasingly weird, needing for their story-lines overflowing pubs, cafes and corner shops and, of course, up close and personal disputes. A punch-up doesn’t work very well over Skype. Will we see that the soaps are not in fact key to our lives?

The government is on Sunday due to give us a road-map for our voyage back to normality.  But what sort of normality will it be?  Will it be the same as before, overlaid with some fading memories of an extraordinary period in our lives, or will it be a different sort of life?  After the second world war, this country went in a different direction, with what was for everyone a massive change - the establishment of the welfare state. Much has been made of the similarity with the war of the present disruption to our lives, a similarity which I think is completely overblown.  We haven’t had the privations of war, the demolition of a large part of our infrastructure and homes and neither have we been in lock-down for 6 years.

We had already seen major changes in the High Street with well-established chains of shops collapsing because of the remorseless invasion onto their territory of online purchasing.  We have all taken that even further in our time of Covid and it is unlikely, even after only a couple of months of not going to shops, that we shall go back to our former habits.  Apart from clothes, we mostly buy things in boxes anyway and so whether it comes from off a shelf in a shop or from a shelf in a warehouse makes little difference to us.  For electronic goods, I would in fact prefer to buy them on the internet as I am likely to have a better description of the article, and so whether it will work as I want it to, than even from the tag on a John Lewis shelf.  And I have a wider choice of supplier and so price. So then, post-Covid, the High Street will diminish further.

Dare I even mention restaurants?  There is apparently an app which, once you are in the restaurant, allows you to read the restaurant’s menu and then place your order.  Your phone then notifies you when the meal is ready so that you can go to the unmanned serving area to transport your meal back to your table, presumably a table with perspex screens to protect you from your friends.  I think that we shall be entertaining much more at home, rather than going with friends to our favourite eateries.

And we shall see a significant change in travel.  Having demonstrated the aptness of their description as ‘floating Petri dishes’, I feel fairly certain that quite a lot of cruise boats will never come out of mothballs, although no doubt some devoted passengers will be willing to take the risk of being confined to quarters again.  Public transport will need to be used in many cities in order to allow people to go back to work. Will employers be able to stagger working hours as is now suggested?  Not very easily, I think and probably not long-term. But what of the attempts by a number of City Councils to create exclusion zones for cars?  Will they be able to resist the pressure which there will be from people who wish to avoid the risk of public transport?  If not, then progress towards reducing that other health hazard, pollution, will be hindered. 

A lot may depend on the continuance of home working by the people, typically office staff, who work in city centres. We would certainly need better technology and faster internet connections in order to enable less stressful video-conferencing.  The time-lags and talking over each other in multi-way calls must be very wearing, but if it means that the employers have to spend less on office accommodation, then I can see that things will move in that direction permanently.

On the other hand, certainly in the absence of a vaccine, no-one I know is very keen on the idea of getting on a plane. Going to another country is in any event likely to result in a demand that you quarantine yourself for 14 days from your arrival – and presumably for a further 14 days after you get back to your home country. So then the contribution of the aviation industry to climate change will be diminished. Some well-known airlines will go out of business, such as, probably, Virgin Atlantic, the Australian branch of which is already in administration. I don’t think that the government would find much public support for bailing out a multi-billionaire, even if he is offering Necker Island as security!  I think though that we shall see a greater emphasis in policy on supporting manufacturing capability here for the things the government considers essential, rather than relying on purchasing from abroad.  If that is so, it will inevitably put prices up.

What about our health system?  Well, although the word ‘Hero’ is a little overused, there is no doubt that the public would support greater expenditure on the NHS and its staff and it looks as though even this Conservative government might now think similarly, after Boris’s brush with death.  It might even finally fulfil its promise to integrate the National Health Service and the care system.  That would be a major change.  And it might just be done in time for the next outbreak of plague! 

Now for many years, the one New Year resolution which I have kept is not to make any New Year resolutions. The idea of resolving on the first day of the year to profoundly change my life is simply silly. This year, however, it seems that New Year's Eve was re-dated to sometime in March, when keeping to a series of resolutions was forced on all of us, whether we liked it or not. But to put it into context, we have to understand that change is constantly happening around us, quickly and slowly, imperceptibly, like the erosion of the mountains, or, more obviously, like the changes of colour which mark the seasons.  In fact, the only thing that constantly accompanies our lives, the only thing that never changes, is change itself. We will have to get used to many other changes in the future.

Paul Buckingham

4 May 2020

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