By Paul Drechsler CBE, Chair – London First
We passed 19th July, billed as Covid ‘Freedom Day’ – freedom for who? At a round table of CEOs one expressed despair at being cast into limbo, as earlier clear messaging on lifting work at home guidance ebbed away to be replaced by confusion and chaos. For businesses, the change has been more to limbo than liberation. For most people, it has been more confusion than clarity.
Losing clarity of message only took seven days, shifting from a clear message on the conditions for business reopening – the lifting of all restrictions – to chaos, with the gap filled by a sort of ‘pick and mix’ policy emerging on wearing of masks and ‘guess the right thing to do’ on social distance.
What has become of the U.K. a world expert in rule making and world famous for its respect for the rule of law.
In a pandemic that is still at the early stage of life globally the Government has decided it’s now up to individuals to work out how best to manage the risk posed by the virus, or put another way, they have shifted the responsibility.
Where they can, other leaders have stepped in to clarify the situation. First to move was the Mayor of London who immediately stated that for public transport in the capital, mask wearing would be required. Of course, this begs the question of the Government, if it’s right for London, what about other cities? It’s a bit like requiring the wearing of a seat belt, but only in some postcodes.
A day later a leading supermarket decided mask wearing would be required in its shops, with bit-by-bit others following suit; retaining mask wearing and social distance practices. As if that wasn’t enough we are now also famous for our very own ‘pingdemic’.
We need our political leaders to make big decisions based on the right thing to do. This recent turn of events looks more like reacting, responding, rethinking – but not providing clear leadership.
I look on the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Science Officer with immense respect, appreciation and sympathy.
Respect for their expertise, leadership and really tough decisions on advising the right thing to do. Appreciation for the brilliant work and huge effort by them and all the colleagues they work with. Sympathy for the risk to the reputation of scientists and fellow professionals following unclear political direction.
We have gone from a rhetoric of experts being overrated or even unnecessary to experts being highly valued if not essential, and now to expert advice if convenient.
Meanwhile businesses just want to get back to business, safely, with confidence and no fear of another lockdown this coming winter – after the last 16 months, for many that is unfathomable, they can’t survive it again.
So, in the short term, what do we need?
• The Government needs to make a consistent, positive case for the reopening of offices, cultural venues, hospitality, and the night-time economy, as there are wider benefits beyond the economic, not least for mental health.
• Secondly, as people start to return in greater numbers to the workplaces, there is a strong view from the business community that making masks mandatory for all public transport in the short-term would be beneficial, as there is a clear benefit to a common approach across the UK.
• Thirdly, it is now critical to bring forward the date for the end of self-isolation for the double-vaccinated to July not August – end the pingdemic.
Our common challenge is the pace of economic recovery; confidence to travel, to go to work and meet other people are essential. Confusion and lack of clarity makes the task of a return to normal that much more difficult. Businesses want to offer flexible working, many have for years, but they want to see people again too. To bring them together, safely, to reconnect and plan for future success.
It is surely too early to know what the future of work will look like and I would encourage business leaders to think carefully about what works now, what will work in a year’s time and what might be needed over the long term.
When so many around us are losing their heads now is not the time for business leaders to lose theirs. We must remain calm, clear and confident that this challenge will be overcome, making the case for evidence-based policy making and taking that same approach in our own organisations.
Meanwhile we need to reestablish international travel which covers so many vital parts of out economy; aerospace, aviation, airports, ships and of course tourism. It feels to me like vaccination passports would be very helpful and let’s not lose sight of the reality; we are all at risk until people in all countries are vaccinated.
In closing, liberation day for many is yet another hill to climb for the brilliant NHS and many essential workers. For their sake and your neighbours, if not your own, wear a mask and get vaccinated.
Paul Drechsler CBE was appointed the Chair of London First in 2018. He is also a Board Member of Greencore and the International Chamber of Commerce ICC(UK), the Chancellor of Teesside University, a member of the Global Advisory Board Of Trinity College Dublin and the Advisory Council Of Step up to Serve.