A year ago, Lynsey Hanley asked ‘do we really want to go back to normal?’ With a year behind us that has only increased inequality, what has changed? Is there hope on the horizon? Has time to reflect focused our minds?
Exactly one year ago I was asked by the Good Business Journal to assess how living through lockdown might change us: how we live, what we do, our sense of what matters and what we can demand. This time in 2020 we were already growing used to spending all our time indoors or within metres of our homes: the roads were empty, rail commuting was down by 95%, and if we couldn’t have shopping delivered we made do with whatever we could get – or grow – on our doorstep.
There was a sense that pressing ‘pause’ on the ever-speeding hamster wheel of work, travel and consumption might give us – as citizens, as consumers – a chance to make permanent and useful changes to our lives. Early on in the first UK lockdown, 91% of people interviewed by YouGov pollsters disagreed with the statement that ‘I hope everything will go back to how it was’. Can the same be said now, after a year of stress, uncertainty, and enforced change?
As businesses slowly reopen and the majority of people make their first steps back towards normal life, it’s a good time to reflect on whether the changes we’ve been forced to make in the last year might become embedded in our permanent habits – and if so, which ones? I want to look at four key areas – health, housing, transport, and consumer habits – in which our lives have been affected the most.
In terms of health, Covid revealed a pattern of entrenched economic, geographic, and social inequality that the disease has exploited mercilessly. Adjusted for age, the coronavirus death rate in the most deprived tenth of areas in Britain has been double that in the least deprived tenth. The Health Foundation reports that women in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to die from Covid than those in the least deprived areas – following on from a pre-pandemic decade in which life expectancy for the poorest women in England had already begun to decline.
In short, lives that were already hard have become harder, and in the last year actively endangered, because of unequal access to healthcare, transport, well-paid – not to mention Covid-safe – work, quality food, outdoor exercise space and digital information. Some businesses have taken notice. Olio, a food-sharing app with three million users, has grown exponentially in the last year, partnering with the grocery behemoth Tesco to establish a ‘Food Waste Hero’ programme in which trained volunteers collect unsold fresh food to distribute for free among local Olio members.
This matters because food security matters. The Trussell Trust, a network of food banks, reported a 47% increase in the number of emergency food parcels it distributed in the first six months of the pandemic, on top of an 18% increase in the year 2019-2020 alone. The last year hasn’t caused inequalities: it has made existing inequalities worse.
Closely aligned with length of life is quality of life, with both in turn deeply influenced by the fabric of the homes we live in and by our local environment. In the last year, existing programmes to improve Britain’s ageing housing stock have gained ground in some areas and faltered in others. People Powered Retrofit, a business established by the Manchester-based Carbon Co-op, has never been in greater demand, as homeowners have sought to save money on heating their homes over the first winter in which many of us have needed to work from home. PPR now has a waiting list of customers for its retrofitting service, while local authorities throughout the country are consulting Carbon Co-op for measure to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency in their stock of rented homes.
More broadly, the volume housebuilders Berkeley Group, U&I and Lovell have helped to fund the newly-launched Quality of Life Foundation (QOFL), in recognition of the fact that a high proportion of new housing developments in recent decades have increased reliance on private cars and made it more difficult for householders to live healthy lifestyles with access to green space, home offices and walking commutes.
QOFL estimates that 4.3 million homes out of England’s stock of around 20 million are ‘poor-quality’, costing the NHS around £1.4bn a year in associated health conditions. It seeks to redress a situation in which ‘although many new homes are being delivered, too many are built without people’s health and wellbeing in mind, resulting in developments that are of poor quality, badly designed or built in the wrong place.’ If we’re to continue working from home this matters more than ever.
As well as working from home by choice after the pandemic, a majority of public opinion – 71% – favours moving to a four-day week, while over a third believe that we would be just as productive in four days as over five. Global businesses including PwC, Microsoft and Unilever have trialled shorter working weeks, with the Autonomy think tank finding that around five per cent of businesses in Britain have already moved to four-day weeks.
The Foundational Economy researchers undertook a close study of Morriston, a town of 25,000 outside Swansea with broadly average incomes and a road system of roundabouts and by-passes which facilitates visits to out-of-town shopping centres but little else. They found that, in spite of an uninspiring recent planning history, its citizens ‘value social infrastructure – parks, libraries and community centres and the free or low cost activities therein’, which enabled them to maximise their disposable time and income and direct it towards things they really want to spend it on.
Once the pandemic is over, habits of shopping locally and thoughtfully will only remain embedded if we want them to, but the early signs are good. The UK arm of Bookshop.org, which fulfils all online orders through independent suppliers, was only launched six months ago but has already generated an additional £1.25 million in income for Britain’s independent bookshops. The Co-op also reports that both Fairtrade and organic products experienced a 20% surge in sales in 2020.
The biggest success story of the last year – in many ways, the one thing that’s gone better than any of us dared to hope – has been the development of several workable vaccines against Covid. What the UK vaccine programme revealed was the essential truth of the economist Mariana Mazzucato’s argument that our best hope for an uncertain future is ‘effective strategic governance of the space where public funding meets private industry.’ Britain invested £11.7bn on researching, buying and making Covid vaccines at a point where we didn’t even know such a thing was possible.
In order to meet the economic and social challenges presented by both coronavirus and the climate emergency, there’s now no other option but cooperation. Businesses will continue to need government investment if they’re to survive another few years of uncertain demand and the possibility of further lockdowns. Governments will need businesses still to be there at all when the current shock is over, and ready to absorb the longer-term disruptions served by ever-stricter climate legislation and the effects of rising temperatures. Covid has jolted us out of slumber: the task now is to keep us awake to change.
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