As I See It: Terry Murden
It is a reflection of our time that the publishing sensation of the year so far was not a kiss-and-tell memoir or a new episode in the Rebus series, but a rather humble civil service document.
Within minutes of going live, the Scottish government’s paper on easing the lockdown proved so popular that the website crashed. Once we were able to see the details it mainly confirmed what had been reported in the media at the weekend: a four-phase shift to the “new normal”.
But the lack of firm timings left businesses frustrated, with many complaining that the call for periods of “preparation” was unnecessary as most have spent weeks preparing and are raring to go.
Comments from a number of trade bodies tells the story. Retailers, hospitality workers, builders – all were looking for a clear timetable, but beyond next Thursday’s official start of the winding down were left wondering exactly when the starting gun for their return to work will be fired.
In the circumstances (I’ll avoid that over-used word ‘unprecedented), the government deserves some slack. The virus may have been tamed, but it remains a dangerous animal. It has been caged for our own protection, but there is a chance that it will be back on the rampage if measures to keep it under control are neglected.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted during the debate in parliament that she almost cried when she saw scenes of people sunbathing on Portobello beach, though this was not only because people were taking liberties with the social distancing advice. She also shared the public’s own frustration at being locked up for two months.
In terms of the contagion no one knows for sure what happens next. There are, as former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, a lot of “known unknowns”. All we have to go on is the example of other countries where there does seem to be a slowing of cases. The return to work in China has seen oil demand nearly back to levels seen before the national lockdown, while European economies are reopening and even planning for the return of tourists.
If a clearer message from Bute House is not forthcoming, there is a risk that Ms Sturgeon may have just let the genie out of the bottle and those scenes on Portobello beach may be repeated as the public take matters into their own hands.
The guidance thus far has been more cautious than some others, although the latest document doesn’t differ that much from the advice issued by Downing Street which just a week ago Ms Sturgeon was denouncing as “reckless”.
The next challenge is how the government manages the new ways of working that will be inevitable: plastic screens, face masks and restricted access will be familiar in many workplaces and leisure facilities. But beyond the physical change is how government action moves from rescue to recovery and then onto the formulation of a strategy for growing this newly-shaped economy.
Already there are warnings that social distancing is unworkable in many industries, such as bars and restaurants, and that it just won’t be worth some businesses re-opening if they have to restrict the numbers of customers.
The delay in reopening schools adds a further frustration for working parents when they see other countries allowing classrooms to reopen. One option may have been to extend the current term to the end of July or mid-August and to start the new school year in September. A number of universities have already decided to delay the start of the new session until October.
As businesses spend the weekend digesting the contents of Holyrood’s plans they will no doubt come back with demands for clearer instruction on when they put their plans into action. Everyone agrees that keeping the economy in a state of hibernation is unsustainable, but how to get back to any sense of business as normal will prove much trickier than imposing the lockdown. Even so, companies need some pointers on when each of these phases will kick-in to enable them to manage cash flow and their supply chains.
In the meantime there is work that could be organised and which would help create a sense of renewal. There is shovel ready work, such as completing 6,000 unfinished homes. While there is less traffic let’s fix the potholed roads and shattered pavements. With fewer commuters on the trains there is an opportunity to bring forward all those engineering works that normally cause so much disruption.
This would be useful “preparation” for rebooting the economy and would help keep people in jobs.