After more than a year spent battling the social, economic and health effects of a pandemic, Britain is tired.
Though the effects of lockdown continue to take a significant toll on our lives, emerging from lockdown is not likely to be a stress-free process either. As we transition to a post-restrictions world, we are going to see some significant changes that have the potential to seriously affect this temporary half-equilibrium we’ve managed to achieve over the past year. Our economic protections, such as the furlough scheme, will come to an end. A government push to encourage us to stay home may be replaced by efforts to get us out and spending. People who have worked from home may find themselves embroiled in all manner of in-person meetings and conferences once again.
If the above sounds stressful, it’s because it is. Big changes are never easy, but for many of us, Britain’s emergence from lockdown will feel like an imperative to get our lives ‘back on track’. Whether that’s through attempting to make up for lost career progression caused by the pandemic, trying to cram in lots of social activities or even dating with a vengeance – it’s undeniable that the end of lockdown will herald significant pressures for many Brits.
The pressure to ‘catch-up’ post-Covid is perhaps most associated with school children, many of whom have struggled through an extended period of remote learning, leading to fears that numerous children have been ‘left behind’ and will be unable to meet the standards required. Some people have tried to change this narrative, urging us not to see education as a set of milestones, and reminding us that work is not the only thing that children have missed out on over lockdown. One school in Lancashire even cancelled lessons for a week to allow children to spend time doing team building and outdoor activities and focus on their friendships. To me, this seems like an excellent idea – and perhaps this sort of initiative shouldn’t just be limited to children.
Even though ‘catching-up’ is ubiquitous in conversations around schoolchildren, the need to do this is actually something that many adults will also struggle with in the coming weeks and months. But, like the children at that Lancashire school, perhaps everyone in the country no matter their age needs a break. Perhaps we all need time to focus on relaxing, having fun and building up our friendships. After all, lockdown has been rather the opposite of a picnic.
I can imagine that many will scoff at such a suggestion. Adults are not like children – we can’t all just suddenly disappear from our jobs. In fact, as society opens up, it may be the case that many people have to work longer and more intense hours, simply to keep up with consumer demand. Others would also cite the furlough scheme. Roughly nine million people were furloughed at the scheme’s peak, and the many narratives around the scheme cast aspersions on those who were saved from losing their jobs by being put on it. Memorably, The Times alleged that people were becoming ‘addicted’ to the furlough scheme. To some observers, many adults in the UK have already had an ‘extended holiday’, with long swathes of time off work.
But spending time on furlough is not a holiday. Anxiety about reduced income, potential redundancy and the isolation and pressure of the pandemic in general have meant that even though many adults have technically had more time on their hands, it doesn’t mean that we have managed to rest. In fact, that extra time the pandemic has often afforded to people has simply been filled with extra productivity (or attempts at productivity). Yes, home workers are getting their commute time back, but they are instead filling that time with extra work. Many furloughed and unemployed people offered their time to volunteer with the NHS – still undoubtedly a form of work. With nothing social to do, it has been hard for adults to break away from cycles of overwork and over-anxiety – and these have become all-encompassing facets of life for many people over the past year. And for those with children who have had to juggle the pressures of homeschooling, the series of lockdowns has been extremely stressful.
Recovery can’t just be about economics. While people may personally need to recoup lost earnings, I worry that the pressure is going to fall entirely to individuals, who will then struggle to find time to recover from the detrimental effects of a year of isolation and anxiety. The government must continue to provide financial support for individuals and businesses as we move out of lockdown – and this is both an economic imperative and a social one. Society with its safety net pulled away will slip deeper into a mental health crisis – and if no one is there to pick up the pieces we will all suffer.
Life, society and economics should not be framed as a race. The government is undoubtedly guilty of doing this – it’s all about getting ‘back on track’, ‘back to normal’ and ‘catching up’. But this narrow view of life and living fails to take into account that people have been plunged into difficult circumstances far beyond their control – and it is not an individual’s responsibility to wholly turn the tide on the difficulties they may have faced. Life is surely not about beating others or being the first person to achieve something. Ultimately, what matters is that individuals can live comfortably, have a high quality of life and are facilitated to be happy through favourable working conditions and social opportunities. If the government really wants Britain to thrive post-pandemic, it must focus on these aims for all the UK’s population.
It’s time we all had a break.