You feel sleepy and lethargic. Even the slightest effort leaves you short of breath. Everything feels like too much of a hassle, nothing has much meaning, and all of your plans have been put on hold. The symptoms of Long Covid? Well not quite. In fact, there is another form of scarring from the pandemic we should be worrying about just as much, if not more. Let’s call it Long Lockdown.
Even now that the virus has, to all intents and purposes, been defeated, we are still reluctant to embrace the world again. Many children continue to be schooled from home, offices are half-empty, the public sector barely even pretends to work five days a week anymore, and companies are still using the virus as an excuse for shoddy service and endless delays. Until we can break free of the shadow of lockdown the country will never get back to normal, nor get anywhere close to its full potential.
With vaccination levels high, infections falling, and the omicron variant milder than its predecessors, you might think that the schools would have shifted into fifth gear by now. After all, the students have been through two years of massive disruption, and exams are finally set to return this summer. But according to Ofsted, many parents are still keeping their children at home because they are “finding it hard to move on from the ‘bubble-isolation’ mentality”. The merest hint of “possible Covid”, and they are back at the kitchen table half-watching Netflix while pretending to be in a maths lesson.
And the problem is not confined to schools. The latest figures from the “Pret Index” run by Bloomberg show the City only operating at 78 per cent of its pre-pandemic level. WH Smith disappointed the markets last month with results that showed traffic at its station and airport shops was still struggling to get close to 2019 levels. Early retirement levels have soared, and the number of over-65s still in work, a key metric as the country struggles to pay for longer life expectancy, has fallen by 11 per cent.
Companies are coming up with an ever more bizarre range of treats to try to tempt reluctant staff back to their desks – free ice cream at Goldman Sachs and free breakfast at Slaughter and May – while many more are giving up and accepting that the ‘‘hybrid’’ model is here to stay, their people will never leave their PJs and Zoom, and they are cutting back on office space instead. As for public services, according to the latest estimates from the DVLA, the average waiting time for a driving test is still 15 weeks, while at 79 centres it is up to 24 weeks. The list goes on and on.
The “bubble-isolation mentality”, in short, is very much still here. It has blended into an already egocentric “me culture” that insists that life should revolve around the individual employee and their personal needs, rather than the needs of the customer, the company or the public. It has been hijacked by overmighty HR departments, and resurgent trade unions, to engineer a permanent cut in working hours under the cover of “well-being”. And it has been used by oligopolistic corporations as a way of reducing services and fobbing customers off with wretched service with the catch-all “because of Covid” excuse.
Long Lockdown is taking an increasing toll on the economy. We have only just struggled back to our 2019 level of output, except with far higher inflation (5.4 per cent compared with 1.79 per cent), far higher levels of public debt (97 per cent of GDP against 85 per cent) and far higher levels of state spending (52 per cent of GDP compared with 38 per cent). We have lower productivity, declining standards of service, and poorer education. For as long as we remain in this semi-Lockdown purgatory, we cannot truly say that we have defeated the virus.
Of course, the Government could fix the problem. It could insist the Civil Service were back at their desks pronto. It could mandate schools to police attendance. It could tell the universities that only half fees could be charged for online courses, and, although it was much mocked at the time, it could revive the ‘‘eat-out-to-help-out’’ scheme to get bars and restaurants buzzing again. We need some leadership to make that happen – and yet right now the Government seems to be as sleepy as everyone else.