Are we at the low point of Covid? Let's hope things start to improve

A rainy Ipswich town centre

Empty streets, closed shops - some permanently - and grim death figures. Have we reached the bottom of the Covid trough? - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

When all is said and done and we can safely look back on the great pandemic of 2020-21 or 22, I really hope that this week is seen as the nadir, as the low-point for both the nation and us locally.

On the Covid front directly, two grim milestones were passed. Britain passed the 100,000 deaths mark while in Suffolk we registered the 1,000th Covid-related death.

On the economic front, we lost two of the largest retailers in the country - both Debenhams and most of the Arcadia group were bought by online companies only interested in their websites, not their shops.

Tens of thousands of jobs were lost - and the heart was ripped out of many high streets across the country, including Ipswich and Bury.

There was more grim, if hardly unsurprising news, when it was confirmed that one of the largest employers in Ipswich, AXA, will be encouraging its staff to work from home two days a week, on average, permanently - which will bring into question the future of its huge offices in Civic Drive.

Most people know it will not be the only town centre employer to think like that. Willis, Suffolk County Council, Ipswich Borough Council and scores of other office-based businesses have found they can work perfectly well with staff at home.

Will everyone continue to work at home full-time once social distancing rules are relaxed? No. But all surveys suggest that the majority of office workers would like to work at least some of the time at home as a permanent arrangement - and if that means companies need smaller premises and lower running costs, are they likely to ignore that?

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That's not just an Ipswich phenomenon. It's something that will be happening in all towns and cities.

All that means the economy of town centres is going to continue to shrink. To be fair, everyone involved in the management of Ipswich town centre seems to recognise that and be trying to deal with it.

I heard one suggestion this week that empty offices in Ipswich could be filled by commuters to London who would rather work from a rented office in their home town than in their spare bedroom.

There might be a very few people who feel like that - but for most the attraction of working from home is that you don't have to travel anywhere to get to work. The "flexible office" in a serviced facility is never going to be attractive for more than a tiny minority of the workforce or employers.

The town centre does need more people living in it. It does need more services for those people - doctors' surgeries, schools, community facilities. But while there is an appreciation of the need for change, there is also a resistance to radical shifts.

Take the Ancient House. It's losing its tenant when Lakeland pulls out. I've said I hope its owner, Ipswich council, doesn't look for another retailer for a building that is totally unsuited to 21st century shopping - but looks at something like a heritage centre with a ground floor cafe.

I've had several people agreeing with me on that, including several with close connections to the council.

But in these cash-strapped days it seems as if senior council figures can't see beyond the need to claw back as much of the £65,000 they were getting every year from Lakeland - and dismiss the idea of finding another use for it as unrealistic.

As I said at the start, I really hope this is the nadir of the pandemic and all that stems from that because we need to be able to look ahead with some optimism.

We've had a raft of events that should be held during the summer being cancelled - from the Suffolk Show, Glastonbury to smaller local events that help bring communities together.

Amid all the doom and gloom that has been flowing over us over recent weeks, we do need to be given some sense that there might be something good to look forward to again.

I know politicians cannot give us timescales and it is frankly pretty pointless for interviewers to ask for them because a pandemic doesn't recognise a  human calendar. But if things do start to improve, I hope we hear a bit more positive news (and I don't just mean Zoom segments on the news with a fitness coach in lycra!).

But when we do start to emerge, I have little confidence that the recovery will be swift and transformative. I think we will be very much in for the long-haul as financial constraints are likely to prevent rapid leaps forward.

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