Coronavirus recovery: Will it drag on for years or will we usher in the new Roaring Twenties? – Bill Jamieson

We could be about to have the party of a lifetime or may have to wait for a lifetime for all this to end, writes Bill Jamieson as he recovers from an over-long ordeal of queuing

A socially distanced queue for Retson's Barber Shop in Manor Street, Falkirk (Picture: Michael Gillen)
A socially distanced queue for Retson's Barber Shop in Manor Street, Falkirk (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Two views now contend on what lies in store for us. One is that, before long, we will burst through in a great escape from the long fractious months of Covid alarm and confinement.

All the fear that has come with lockdown, isolation, restrictions, hassle and inconvenience will give way to a post-pandemic boom – a party like no other. It will be the Roaring Twenties a hundred years on: after the deadly Spanish flu pandemic, the aftermath of The Great War, unemployment and recession, is it not likely that history would repeat itself now that Covid-19 has wreaked death, misery and havoc around the world?

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The other is that, far from abating, the coronavirus lockdown continues in fits and bursts as we wrestle with the prospect of a second wave – followed by a never-ending series of further outbreaks. Yet more travel restrictions, quarantine periods, and the return of shielding for the vulnerable. By that time, ‘normal’ life as we know it will have become a distant memory.

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How long can we endure the stress of pandemic shopping on a daily basis? Yesterday, on a rare outing, I made a visit to two stores. These should have taken no more than 30 minutes but extended to one and a half hours – most of them spent queuing outside the shop entrances. After half an hour standing waiting for the queue to move, I asked the door steward if a chair could be provided. “Can’t do that,” came the reply. “Not allowed under health and safety.”

Once inside, the “retail experience” was joyless – face masks on, shuffling along aisles marked with direction arrows, little chance to ponder the purchase, doubling back for a forgotten item involving a long detour back to where you started, customers kept to a six-foot distance – and another shuffling queue at the check-out.

Are we really past the worst of this? Heaven knows how older people are coping. But this is killing me – and it is killing retail as we know it – along with thousands of small and medium-sized businesses.

Fresh analysis this week by the Scottish Retail Consortium has found that retailers in Scotland lost £1.9 billion of sales during the first four months of the pandemic. Sales here recorded four successive months of double-digit decline between March and June. While sales improved last month, they were still down almost a fifth on the same period last year, and lagged behind that of the UK as a whole.

Says SRC director David Lonsdale: “Shops and retail jobs depend on the ongoing patronage of the public and whilst the situation is gradually improving, it remains particularly acute in our city centres where stores are suffering huge drops in footfall.

“Any prolonged absence of office workers, students and tourists from Scotland’s city centres will be hugely challenging for retail and hospitality businesses who rely on their custom, and who often already face high property costs. This will have consequences for jobs, vacant premises, and tax revenues.”

Daily updates on how the virus appears to be returning in major towns and cities here and abroad are a constant drain on everyday confidence and morale. Talk of a massive surge back into towns and city centres has given way to second thoughts – not just ‘can we endure it?’ but ‘dare we risk it?’. The one shard of good news for me is that the emergency village food vans, far from fading away, are back in force – with queues.

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A critical part of retailing today is back-up service – sorting out order problems and repair and return of items. I had to join a repair queue at a major electronic goods outlet for what I thought was a defective laptop keyboard. The world-weary assistant took one look at the device, stood it on one end and tapped. Out tumbled months of accumulated detritus – toast crumbs, tobacco strands, cake remains, pencil shavings and dandruff. I was utterly humiliated. After a brisk wiping with an anti-septic cloth and cleaning fluid, my “broken” keyboard was sparkling and as good as new. How we under-estimate the service part of retail and the huge benefits (and in my case savings) it provides for careless customers.

But a return of “the Roaring 20s?” The prospect of a global mass post-pandemic party is gaining. Governments and central banks have created an epochal hurricane of money and it may be too early yet to write off a ‘V’ shaped recovery.

Next year my yearning for a brand-new laptop may return with unstoppable force, and with it a wall of deferred purchases unleashed by millions. That, and a return to normal for pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and sports and outdoor events would feel like the party of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it feels like a lifetime that we will have to wait for it.

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