Covid lockdown may usher in new age of 'the people's austerity' – Bill Jamieson

The coronavirus lockdown has made us all reassess what is essential and what is not, a process that could lead to profound changes, writes Bill Jamieson

A flight lands at Edinburgh Airport, but will air travel become more expensive as fewer people are able to board the same flight? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
A flight lands at Edinburgh Airport, but will air travel become more expensive as fewer people are able to board the same flight? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

What is now “essential” in everyday life across the UK? What are we learning to live without as the lockdown continues?

There is barely a household not now experiencing a searching examination of what is, and what is not, “essential” – whether in venturing outdoors, persevering with social-distance shopping or picking our way through online retail websites amid countless items labelled “unavailable” or “coming soon”.

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From overseas holidays to pub visits and eating out, we have been forced into major behavioural change – much of which may prove lasting.

Airlines are now having to cope with a downturn in passenger traffic that may last for years. And the hospitality sector – seemingly inconsequential but accounting for some ten per cent of the economy – is facing a massive struggle to survive months of restrictions and social distancing. Restaurant visits and eating out will be highly restricted, more expensive and reserved for “essential” special occasions. As for pubs and cafes – many will struggle to survive without outdoor seating areas.

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When it comes to shopping, we are learning to purge ourselves of non-essential items. Gone are the temptations of impulse buying – even in B&Q browsing time is limited as the staff beckon us through in ones and twos and we follow the floor-painted arrows and red tape along the permitted aisles.

For the greater good

Evidence mounts that the dominant services sector of the economy contracted at a record pace last month. According to IHS Markit, around 79 per cent of services, such as cafes and hairdressers reported a fall in business activity amid mass shutdowns in response to the coronavirus.

And it warned that the decline could be even greater. Tim Moore, economics director at IHS Markit, says the data “highlights that the downturn in the UK economy during the second quarter of 2020 will be far deeper and more widespread than anything seen in living memory”.

Welcome to the new world of “the people’s austerity”. Much of it is causing us to despair and moan. But a greater part of it we are coming to accept for the greater good of our health, safety and well-being.

We are adapting to a new normal of restriction – with its many changes to previously everyday social behaviour. Tentative recovery is evident in areas such as road traffic, weekly shopping habits, outdoor work on construction sites and of course adapting to working from home. We have embraced a quantum leap in our use of digital technology and in a few weeks have become more tech-savvy than we ever imagined.

Will we snap back to the way we were? Unlikely, I suspect, as many of the changes we have come to accept are for the better. We are focused on staples, not fripperies. Food waste is sharply down. Transaction volumes on credit and debit cards have plunged – even after allowing for those DIY splurges on Amazon.

An aversion to long-distance air travel

And will we mourn the decline of packed buses and trains as peak commuting volumes have declined and a return to office work is likely to be staggered? Not much, I suspect.

Among the most dramatic changes will be an aversion to long-distance air travel to exotic holiday destinations. Virgin Atlantic has announced it is to cut more than 3,000 jobs in the UK and end its operation at Gatwick airport.

Many airlines have been struggling as the coronavirus pandemic has brought global travel to a virtual standstill. British Airways said it was set to cut up to 12,000 jobs from its 42,000-strong workforce. It also told staff that its Gatwick operation might not re-open after the pandemic passes. Ryanair has also said it will cut 3,000 jobs – 15 per cent of its workforce – with boss Michael O’Leary saying the move was “the minimum that we need just to survive the next 12 months”.

As for air fares, there are fears that these could rise by at least 50 per cent, according to the International Air Transport Association. If airlines are forced to keep middle seats free, they will need to raise air fares significantly.

Holiday destinations in Scotland such as the Highlands and Islands should be major beneficiaries – if visitor businesses can hold out during the current restrictions.

Here, as in other areas, we may find “the people’s austerity” an acceptable change to our notions of “essentials” and “priorities”.

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