Britain is emerging from lockdown. After three months of tight controls bringing society to an effective standstill, the beaches are packed, the parks are full and pubs are readying for an influx of drinkers next weekend.
Ministers believe the gradual easing of restrictions is the single most important step the government can take to help companies to stay afloat and to keep people in work – aiming to minimise the risk of a jobs crisis this summer.
There are good reasons to lift lockdown as Covid-19 infections fall and redundancies steadily mount, with the country now bracing for 1980s levels of unemployment.
Over the past three months it has become clear that poorer households are being hit disproportionately hard. Low-income workers in hospitality and retail are much more likely to be either furloughed or at risk of losing their jobs than others.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as many as 80% of the bottom tenth of earners in Britain are either unable to work from home or are in sectors that have been closed. This compares with about 25% of workers in the top-paid tenth.
The continuation of tough controls risks the emergence of a two-tier society, split between those able to work from home, and those for whom work vanishes entirely.
Workers under the age of 25 are twice as likely to work in a closed sector, while those leaving school or university this year will enter the toughest jobs market for several generations. Areas of Britain that were struggling before this crisis are also much more likely to be at most risk from higher numbers of job losses.
The prospect of unemployment more than doubling this summer, as estimated by the Bank of England, could leave those who find themselves out of work severely scarred.
For these reasons, the government has a strong argument to make about easing restrictions for reasons of social justice. But rolling back lockdown too early to protect businesses, jobs and growth could also prove a false economy.
Resuming economic activity across the country will inevitably bring people into closer contact as businesses reopen and social life gradually resumes, increasing the risks of a second wave of infections later this summer. Such an outcome would require renewed lockdown controls later this year, inflicting further pain on companies and workers.
For this reason, many restrictions will remain in place. But there are glaring inconsistencies in the government’s approach. People will be able to down a pint at the pub but remain barred from gyms. Teenagers can head to the shops with their friends but their schools remain closed.
The mixed messages create confusion and erode trust in a government that has already depleted much of its political capital thanks to its late, chaotic, and costly approach to entering lockdown, as well as its double standards over the lockdown behaviour of No 10’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
While easing restrictions should put Britain on the road to recovery from the worst recession in living memory, ministers must also wake up to the realisation that simply hanging an “open” sign over the economy is not enough on its own.
Many workers are rightly worried about the health risks from coronavirus. Hopes among retailers for a revival on the high street will be dashed by fears among shoppers. Despite the reopening of non-essential shops in England, footfall remains well down on last year.
As the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, draws up a stimulus package to coincide with the lifting of lockdown, he must recognise that rebuilding Britain’s economy will require continued government support. For those who lose their jobs this summer, extra help to cushion the blow must also be put in place.
To safely unwind lockdown and return the country to work, ministers will need to keep a weather eye on the health risks and stand ready to reimpose restrictions, while continued financial aid and stimulus will be needed as the country takes time to recover.
Women are in the majority in retail – but not in the boardroom
Why are the women working in retail visible on the shop floor but not in the boardroom? On Friday, greetings card retailer Card Factory parted company with its chief executive, Karen Hubbard, after four years. While investors may welcome the move – the shares have fallen 70% this year – her departure is disappointing for other reasons.
Without Hubbard there is not a single woman left in charge of a FTSE-350-listed retailer – a statistic that is particularly damning given that the industry’s 3-million-strong workforce is 60% female.
In its February update, the government’s Hampton-Alexander review celebrated the fact that its target of having women hold a third of board positions in the UK’s top 350 listed companies had been reached a year earlier than expected. However, the review is struggling to achieve its other main aim: to have 33% of women in the actual leadership teams of companies, as opposed to populating the City’s ranks of non-executives.
So what is stopping women? It is a question that has been asked ad nauseam. Why are their skills being wasted when a growing body of evidence points to boardroom diversity actually improving performance? Are powerful chairmen and shareholders still to be convinced of the benefits of hiring female executives?
The unspoken assumption is often still that being the boss is incompatible with motherhood, because of the long hours, travel and endless networking (which somehow never prevents ambitious fathers from succeeding).
Tesco chairman John Allan got a well-deserved roasting several years ago when he “joked” that white men risked becoming an “endangered species” in boardrooms as businesses increasingly embraced diversity. “For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs; the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way,” he said.
Soaraway summer unlikely to stop axe falling on airline jobs
The June heatwave could hardly have been timed better to push the aviation and travel industry into a red-hot fury, after it had been sweating too long on the government’s announcement of long-trailed plans for air bridges or travel corridors.
Official confirmation is due on Monday, which should enable tour firms and airlines to start offering foreign flights and holidays with certainty. Only perhaps the residents of Bournemouth will be as relieved as the travel sector to know that Britain can once again export its sunseekers to the beaches of Greece and Spain.
Many questions remain – not least whether mass foreign travel will lead to new spikes in deaths from coronavirus. From an airline perspective, the delay has kept customers from booking a holiday in the peak summer season that is critical for the industry’s survival.
But while the rest of the economy remains largely obliged to respect social distancing, airlines appear to be giving themselves a free pass to fill every seat in their planes.
To recoup even a fraction of the lucrative summer business is the great hope on which airlines have now focused. And yet even last week, easyJet squeezed shareholders for more cash, and British Airways confirmed it would be slashing the pay of those long-serving cabin crew who survive the axe.
The battle over the misconceived quarantine rules has briefly obscured the controversy over whether or not the government should be bailing out the sector.
A summer of flying could start pointing the way to recovery. But without the appearance of a miracle corona cure – or, even more miraculous, a coherent government response – the problems are likely to look worse in the autumn, with few passengers as hungry for business travel as they are for a holiday.
The thousands of workers in aviation whose jobs are already in jeopardy are, alas, unlikely to be the last.