Covid recovery: Anders Holch Povlsen's plans for Jenners department store should inspire Britain and the world to build back better – Susan Dalgety

The relief I felt as I followed the arrows out of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre was palpable.

Jenners department store in Edinburgh may have closed but billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen has big plans despite the economic damage caused by Covid and the switch to online shopping (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Jenners department store in Edinburgh may have closed but billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen has big plans despite the economic damage caused by Covid and the switch to online shopping (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

It was all I could do to resist the urge to skip the last few metres, and as soon as I left the building, I whipped off my mask and shouted, “thank god” to my husband, and every passing stranger.

We celebrated our second Covid vaccine with a long black coffee and a big fat pastry in a Lothian Road café. What was once a mundane experience was almost magical. I luxuriated in my pain au raisin, my first for 15 months, marvelled at the size of the coffee cup, and indulged in my favourite pastime, listening to the conversation of strangers.

Social distancing is not conducive to eavesdropping, but I heard enough to know that the city is healing. Slowly. A young man entered the café hesitantly. “Can we come in?” he asked politely from the doorway. “Can we sit down?” he queried, tentatively. “Two cappuccinos,” he smiled as he and his companion realised that life was returning to normal.

Two hours later, shivering in a bus queue, soaked to the skin after getting caught in a downpour, I grimaced at how mundanely this momentous day was turning out.

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Every brolly in our flat has been bought in an emergency, after a late spring or summer day turned into a deluge. Why should today, the day I got my second vaccine against a deadly virus that has decimated the world economy, be any different? It’s Edinburgh, in the spring. Of course, it’s raining. “We’re almost back to how it was”, I thought, then looked up and saw the empty windows of Jenners.

Jenners is where I bought a pair of navy over-the-knee socks on my first trip to the capital, aged 15. Since moving to live in Edinburgh more than 40 years ago, I have lost count of the number of times I have used Jenners as a pit stop. I would pop into store to use the loo but would invariably buy something on my way out. An over-priced lipstick. Expensive tights. Occasionally a dress or two if they were on sale.

Billionaire Anders Holch Povslen and his wife Anne Holch Povlsen (Getty Images)

Since the store opened in 1838, Jenners was Edinburgh, and now it lies abandoned. A clumsy metaphor for the new normal, where we all shop online, where grabbing a coffee has become a lesson in logistics, and where the future is very uncertain.

By the time I boarded the bus home, I was thoroughly wet and very depressed. I had not really enjoyed my brief foray along Princes Street. Debenhams, another of my regular toilet breaks, lay empty too. Marks and Spencer offered little solace, with its racks of useless holiday clothes. Who is going to wear linen while on a weekend break in Fife? When my husband messaged me to say, “sorry, your book isn’t in Waterstones”, I almost cried.

The euphoria I felt at receiving my second dose of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine had turned to angst in less time than it used to take me to explore three floors of TK Maxx. “We are all doomed,” I railed as I scrolled through news sites on the journey home. My mood worsened.

The pandemic has precipitated a dramatic fall in the birth rate, in rich countries at least. Data collected for the World Health Organisation shows births in 21 countries, including the UK, dropped by 11 per cent on average in January. Fewer births mean fewer taxpayers to look after Boomers and Gen X as we age.

Inflation is on the rise. It doubled to 1.5 per cent in April, and experts calculate that if the low rate of VAT on the hospitality industry (five per cent until September) was not in place, inflation would be at 3.2 per cent. If it runs out of control, our fragile economy will be in serious trouble.

Across the globe, the picture is even more stark. As Britain cuts its international aid budget, global poverty is rising for the first time in decades.

Last month, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced plans to spend £906 million in humanitarian aid this year – more than 40 per cent less than in 2019. The United Nations estimates that a record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2021, a nearly 40 per cent increase on last year.

And vaccine hoarding by rich countries meant that by last month only 0.3 per cent of the Covid vaccines had gone to low-income countries. It matters if people in Rwanda or Bangladesh have not had their jab. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that at least 70 per cent of the world’s population must have immunity to stop the pandemic.

By the time I reached the city limits I was in despair, but then I stumbled on an article in our sister paper, the Edinburgh Evening News. The new owner of Jenners, Anders Holch Povlsen, had just published his plans to restore the iconic department store to its former glory.

A spokesman for his company, AAA United, insisted they take their responsibility of renovating the store “very seriously”. He added: “Our plans are all about strengthening the Jenners building.”

It may be several years before Edinburgh will be able to enjoy Jenners once again, but its future looks bright. A significant investment, coupled with thoughtful planning, will see it built back better than before.

As the G7 group of rich democracies prepares to meet in Cornwall next month, we must hope their leaders take inspiration from Mr Povlsen and Jenners. Britain – and the world – can be a better place than it was before the virus struck.

All it needs is a significant investment by those countries which can afford it, and a truly united effort across the globe. The alternative is too gloomy to contemplate.

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