Looking ahead, there may be cause for cautious optimism though. Omicron cases have already begun to plateau in some areas and a growing body of evidence indicates that the variant leads to less severe illness than its predecessors.
This has emboldened leaders North and South of the Border to adopt a “ride it out” approach - resisting further tightening of restrictions at this stage. Assuming this line holds, we may just escape another long tail of restrictions, the likes of which took months to roll-back following previous lockdowns.
While it would be premature to conclude that we are approaching the end of the pandemic, we are certainly progressing into a new phase, characterised by public policy decisions which acknowledge a need to “live with” Covid for the long term. Previous notions of sustained suppression or eradication, with their high associated economic and societal costs, have given way to realism in the face of Omicron’s transmissibility.
Assuming a fuller and faster “unlocking” than on previous occasions, an end to mandatory home working may, finally, offer an opportunity for organisations to meaningfully plan for how hybrid working will function when steered by employee and business needs, rather than public health drivers.
So, beyond Covid, what else will populate risk (and opportunity) registers over the coming year?
COP26 had barely concluded before the pandemic surged again to draw focus away from climate matters, but any lull in attention will be short-lived. In the context of risk and opportunity, climate and sustainability accentuates both for business, with the pace of change and impact only set to accelerate. This year, financial institutions and publicly-listed businesses across all sectors in the UK will be working to make substantive, measurable and authentic commitments to address their carbon impact, in preparation for the mandatory reporting, from 2023, of net zero transition plans. Such changes occasioned by the climate crisis will be permanent and significant for the long term unlike (we hope) those brought about by Covid.
Also coming into focus on the horizon is the First Minister’s commitment to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2023. While constitutional affairs have been on the back burner through this latest wave of the pandemic, much water will need to flow under the bridge this year if that timetable is to be met. The business community will be watching closely, as legislation for a second referendum is introduced to Holyrood and then, most likely, challenged at the UK Supreme Court to determine how, and indeed if, any second vote proceeds.
Constitutional issues aside, with no parliamentary elections scheduled for 2022, might a period of relative political calm be in prospect? Hardly. With energy prices set to soar upon the lifting of the price cap in April, and public inquiries into both the UK and Scottish governments’ handling of the Covid crisis beginning in earnest, if anything the political bunfight looks set to intensify.
Andrew Henderson, Director of Public Policy at Pinsent Masons