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DAME HELENA MORRISSEY, it’s the poor who’ll suffer most if we don’t return to the office

Walking through the City of London last week was an eerie and disturbing experience.

This is an area I know well through my long career in finance. It is usually throbbing with life. Pavements are crowded, roads congested, offices packed, entrance doors in perpetual motion.

Yet, on Monday afternoon, I felt as if I had wandered into a ghost town. I could cross the road without a glance to either side because there was no traffic.

Amid shuttered shops and closed buildings, near-silence had descended.

Travelling home by Tube at five o’clock — once the height of rush hour — I had almost an entire carriage to myself.

It was a stark reminder of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus emergency and the ongoing policy response.

The City is the premier financial centre in the world and a key engine of our economy. Today that machine is barely functioning.

Tragically, this paralysis is replicated across the land. Monday, August 3, the day when the Government dropped its official advice to ‘work from home if you can’, was supposed to be the moment that Britain came roaring back to life after almost five long months of lockdown. But instead of a flood tide of returning employees, we saw just a trickle.

According to a study by Morgan Stanley, just a third of British office workers were back at their desks last week, compared with 83 per cent of those in France and 76 per cent of those in Italy.

An audit by this paper of 30 of Britain’s biggest firms, representing 320,000 employees, painted an even gloomier picture. Just 17 per cent of the workers planned to return their offices.

Many, I accept, will have been working productively from home. But the abandonment of the traditional workplace is causing real damage, particularly to the huge sector — often small, independent businesses — that is dependent on thriving office life, including cafes, sandwich shops, bars, newsagents and taxi drivers.

Just this week, WHSmith announced that it is to make about 1,500 staff redundant. Similarly, Pret a Manger revealed last month that it is to close 30 shops, while the owners of the Upper Crust takeaway chain are to let 5,000 employees go.

So what, you might say. Surely that’s a price worth paying for a few more weeks at home that might reduce the transmission of coronavirus even further? Except that this is part of a wider employment crisis starting to grip the economy and it will cause grave damage for years to come.

It is estimated that at least 135,000 jobs have already disappeared and this figure is likely to be dwarfed in the autumn when government employment protection schemes are due to end. So far, the Treasury has poured more than £30 billion into its furlough initiative, protecting more than nine million employees, as well as another £50 billion into business loans and £8 billion into grants for the self-employed.

But further support at this level is unaffordable. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, this year’s fiscal deficit is likely to reach more than £370 billion, followed by another £150 billion in 2021.

Lavishing yet more taxpayers’ funds on massive subsidies will only entrench the artificial, semi-comatose nature of the economy.

What we need is to begin a real return to normality: ministers and scientists must drop the fearful messaging of late and open up commerce with vigour and determination. They must make it clear that the only alternative to economic catastrophe is getting back to work now.

For that to happen, our society needs to develop a sense of perspective about coronavirus — and to take some responsibility for ourselves.

Yes, it is a brutal disease and every Covid-19 death is a cause of personal grief. But it is folly to pretend the virus is an apocalyptic threat, as some of the scaremongering has implied.

In recent days, I have listened in despair to doom-laden talk about the probability of a ‘second wave’ from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, a former member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and a man notorious for the inaccuracy of some of his forecasts (on BSE and Foot and Mouth, for example) — and for breaking the lockdown with his married lover.

This week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said pubs might have to close before schools can reopen, without adequately explaining the logic behind the thought and with no regard to the impact of his words on the devastated hospitality sector.

Even worse was Dr David Nabarro, one of the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Envoys, who, again on the Today programme, warned of ‘very bad surges’ unless more action is taken.

It did not help that these alarming predictions followed the introduction of a partial lockdown in the North West after localised spikes, the Prime Minister talking of a ‘second wave’ in parts of Europe, reports that the Government was ‘war-gaming’ plans to impose a lockdown on millions of the over-50s, and restrictions on travel to and from London if a second wave emerged here. Of course, we cannot be complacent when it comes to this novel virus. But that ultra-cautious attitude is the exact opposite of what Britain needs at this dangerous moment in our history.

The continuing disproportionate focus on coronavirus has created a persistent atmosphere of exaggerated fear.

Such anxiety might have been understandable when the lockdown was imposed in March, but it is now wholly unjustified by current data.

On Thursday this week, there were just 737 coronavirus patients in UK hospitals, compared with 17,000 at the peak in April. Sixty-three were in mechanical ventilation beds, compared with more than 3,000 at the peak.

There were eight deaths reported on Thursday, the lowest number for that day of the week since lockdown began.

In the same vein, when the crisis was at its worst in April, more than 1,000 people died with the disease on 22 consecutive days. Yet the latest statistics, for the week ending July 24, recorded just 217 Covid deaths, accounting for just 2.4 per cent of all fatalities in England and Wales. We also know that the median age of those who died is over 80.

What makes the myopia about coronavirus all the more dangerous is that it leads to neglect of other, often serious, conditions, as the Mail reported this week.

Many cancer patients, for example, are finding tests, operations and treatment delayed, while mental health care, drug rehabilitation, care for the elderly and even getting an appointment with the GP are adversely impacted.

The pursuit of safety has become its own menace. On top of the economic damage, the Covid lockdown has brought a host of social problems, from fractured relationships to an increase in excessive drinking — in July alone, alcohol sales were up by 40 per cent.

Then there are the profound feelings of alienation and oppression, so different from the freedoms we took for granted until recently.

Our lives are governed by an endless barrage of complex, sometimes contradictory edicts. At my daughter’s school, she and her Year 6 classmates were bewildered and upset to be told they could not associate with any pupils outside their ‘bubble’.

At least she was able to go to school. By September, millions of pupils will have been deprived of any education for at least six months, even though there is no recorded case worldwide of any child passing on coronavirus in a school setting.

It is also clear that coronavirus has cemented inequalities between private schooling and the state sector, hindering social mobility.

But those Covid inequalities can be seen on every front — between rich and poor, male (who are at greater risk) and female, white and BAME (the latter group are far more likely to work in the front line of essential services and are significantly more vulnerable to the disease).

Meanwhile, the institutional obsession with Covid is all-consuming. Its authoritarianism extends into every aspect of life.

I went to a church service recently and, although there were only about ten of us in the congregation, the priest spent much of her time not on spiritual matters but on the announcement of coronavirus regulations.

I decided it was probably a more spiritual experience to say my prayers at home for now.

Another of my daughters, a gregarious student, was sent detailed orders about Covid-compliant life on campus next term.

It read like something from a police state; rules on face coverings, library closures, the provision of meals ‘in boxes’ and interaction with other students couched in a fear-mongering tone.

I’ll say it again: we cannot go on like this. We are allowing the disease to dominate us in a bullying, destructive manner out of all proportion to its real health impact.

Most Britons are not at any risk of serious illness at all. The mortality rate is believed to be less than 0.5 per cent and much lower for those under 70 and those without underlying health issues.

With greater testing of those who have no symptoms, it is hardly surprising that the recent limited increase in positive cases has produced no rise in deaths or admissions to hospital.

Moreover, as knowledge of the disease improves, so the quality of effective treatment advances and the potency of coronavirus declines with each passing month.

We need to learn to live with the risks through a more balanced, pragmatic policy that takes account of our wider social and economic needs.

With continuing improvements in test-and-trace, now in the hands of local authorities who are achieving increased take-up, it is possible to contain any uptick in infection rates at a regional level, rather than stifling activity nationally.

The Government needs to signal this unambiguously: the central case is to get on with our lives, accepting the need for agility and flexibility if a flare-up occurs.

Ministers should also break free from the iron control exerted for too long by the scientists.

However admirable their work, they are hired to advise rather than dictate. Their word is not gospel. Their individual opinions are often fiercely contested by colleagues and many of their analyses have turned out to be flawed.

More importantly, they have a vested interest in playing up the worst-case scenarios, as they don’t want to be accused of complacency. So SAGE should include other experts to challenge and provide different perspectives, such as mental health practitioners, cancer specialists and, dare I say it, economists, too.

But perhaps the most important step is to get back to the workplace. If France and Italy can do it, why can’t we? Hiding at home has never been the British way. Some commentators will rightly say that remote working has great advantages for employers, who save on office costs, and for employees, who can achieve a better work-life balance as well as savings on childcare and commuting.

As a lifelong campaigner for equality, I am all in favour of more flexible working. But we must also be aware of the broader ramifications of a wholesale retreat.

In an economy where consumer services make up four-fifths of activity, offices are vital not just for the livelihoods of millions — often the poorest in society — but for growth.

There is also a powerful element of social justice about this duty. Huge numbers of essential workers — from supermarket delivery crews to healthcare professionals — are unable to work from home but have carried on heroically.

And for many young people in shared, cramped city accommodation, home working is miserable.

Why should the right of these two groups to a decent living be denied by those who have the privilege of choice? But that is what will occur if the great office stayaway continues.

There is a further danger, too, of which many seem heedless. Those who have shown they can work efficiently from home are also demonstrating to employers that the job could be done from abroad, where labour costs are cheaper.

As firms battle to reduce overheads, many bosses may be tempted to do just that. Those who opt not to return to the office through fear or complacency may be in for rude awakening.

As the economy ossifies, we will all end up losers. Without any return to normality in the autumn, the Government will face a stark, unpalatable choice: either mass unemployment or the horrendous cost of extended furlough.

I am certain the Cabinet does not want to go down either of those roads. That is why ministers across government need to make it consistently clear that we must, and can, learn to live with this virus, that we cannot put our lives on perpetual hold.

Now is the time for bravery, for accepting that negative messaging will only make the crisis worse.

Of course, we must protect the vulnerable. But now people should be allowed to make choices for themselves, with the confidence that, for the majority, this virus is not as dangerous as it was.

It is the time for Britain to get moving again. 

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