We may have more freedom but we’re still far from the old ‘normality’

Shoppers are returning to Ipswich's town centre - but not in the numbers seen before the lockdown.

Shoppers are returning to Ipswich's town centre - but not in the numbers seen before the lockdown. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Have we come out of lockdown, or are we “easing lockdown” – and are we really going to be back to “normality” by Christmas as Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested during his national pep talk last week?

Boris Johnson said he hoped things would be heading back to "normal" for Christmas. Picture: Andrew

Boris Johnson said he hoped things would be heading back to "normal" for Christmas. Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire - Credit: PA

I’m afraid I’m a bit of a pessimist on these things. Despite some undoubted good news over the last week, I remain extremely doubtful about whether the world we occupied until February this year will ever return in the same form.

Scientists are, by their very nature, programmed to be cautious. While there are some encouraging signs from Oxford vaccine, and others from around the world, it is clear that there are still many hurdles to be overcome – and even the most optimistic are not predicting getting a vaccine out before the end of this year. Before then winter will have arrived and those scientists expect that to herald a second spike.

Mr Johnson’s hope of getting crowds back to outdoor sporting events and into theatres by October is a worthy aspiration – but if that comes just as the number of cases and deaths starts to increase significantly with cold weather, then is it really going to happen?

I have made gloomy predictions over the last few months, and some of them have not been justified. Some pubs and restaurants have reopened and there is Premier League football on the television again.

That is good. But it is not the whole story. I haven’t yet been out to a pub or a restaurant and neither have most of the people I know. It just doesn’t feel safe yet – and why put yourself at risk if you can have a perfectly good takeaway and a bottle of wine from the supermarket?

I know it’s not what restaurants and pubs want to hear, and that is a purely personal feeling I have . . . but it’s clear from many surveys that I’m not the only person to feel like that. I’m afraid the offer of half-price meals in August won’t change that for me.

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But it’s about much more than pubs and restaurants. It’s also about the world of work and the knock-on effect that has on the economy.

Mr Johnson said last week that employers and employees should think about returning to their normal workplaces. Certainly that is what businesses in Ipswich are looking for. They want more office workers milling around the town visiting the shops and takeaways at lunchtime. It would restore more “normality.”

MORE: Prime Minister says businesses should try to bring back staff

But despite the PM’s plea, I really don’t see a major change anytime soon. A few hours after Mr Johnson’s press conference Government Chief Scientist Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Office Prof Chris Whitty appeared at a House of Lords Committee and made it clear they both felt social distancing rules would have to remain in place until a reliable vaccine was available.

That effectively quashed any hopes of “normal” numbers of office staff returning to their workplace. I work in a modern, spacious office. But with social distancing rules only between a quarter and a sixth of the desks can be occupied.

My employers have made it clear that those of us who have worked successfully at home throughout the lockdown can continue to do that for the foreseeable future. That is a message that is replicated by employers across the town – but it is not good news for the businesses that rely on casual trade.

The news that the new Ipswich Town Deal Board is to apply for £25m from the government to improve the area is very good – but I do hope people realise this cannot just be used to prop up businesses in areas that cannot have a future.

MORE: Could Ipswich get £25m to kick start its economy?

Arras Square does need a facelift and more needs to be done to improve access to the town centre. But Ipswich residents (and visitors) need to be aware that without significant numbers of casual shoppers every day the current number of shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants is unsustainable and the transformation of the town centre is certain to continue.

Those numbers seem unlikely to recover to keep all the businesses open. Some – like Coast to Coast and Jack Wills – have already gone. Others are part of national groups that have already announced restructuring plans and are unlikely to exempt Suffolk towns from those plans.

So, if we manage to avoid a major second peak and the promising start to research into a vaccine is maintained we may be getting an idea of what the new normal is likely to be by Christmas – but to think things will be back to how they were in 2019 is over-optimistic.

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