Lockdown - Reflections at the end of week 49

Meteorologists will tell you that spring begins next Monday. Others will tell you that it doesn’t start until the vernal equinox, which this year is on 20th March. Either way, spring is in the air, a feeling reinforced for many of us by a series of dry, warm days.

Further reinforcement has come from this week’s roadmap announcement. The length of time set out in it for the freeing up of restrictions has, inevitably, not impressed everyone. However, if you set out, as the government has on this occasion, to try to ensure that we won’t all be confined back to barracks again after we’re released, its caution and declared reliance on scientific data must be correct. The fact that the government has set out the gradual steps to freedom has itself given us all something to look forward to.

And so to next week’s news and the Budget. The voices delivering advice to the chancellor have become a cacophony this week. Philip Hammond, never the cheeriest of chancellors, has popped up this week urging the chancellor to tell us all how bad it is and cautioning against further giveaways. On the other hand, there are calls, many of them from the government’s own backbenchers, for further spending to encourage economic growth The roadmap has also produced calls for ongoing support for mothballed businesses with around 4.7 million workers being on furlough in January and the scheme due to run out at the end of April. Business rates have also been under the spotlight, with lobbying for the business rates holiday for the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors to remain suspended at least until full trading can be resumed. Commentators are generally of the view that the furlough scheme will be extended for a further month, but there’s a little more doubt at the moment in their view on business rates, but those at the sharp end will tell you that both are very much needed not only whilst businesses are closed but through the period in which they’re getting back up to speed.

It is easy to see that some businesses which are currently closed will experience a pretty rapid bounceback, constrained only by the biosecurity measures that will need to stay in place for a while. Zoom calls reveal to me that I am not the only one whose face will have disappeared behind a hedge of hair by 12th April and, whilst I’m not sure if I’m going to need a hairdresser or a landscape gardener for the job, I’m sure that business at the hairdressers will be as brisk as it’s allowed to be right from the get-go. On the other hand, shops, cafes and gyms are likely to experience the sort of restart that will, if you’ve ever heard it ( and I don’t recommend that you go out of your way to do so if you haven’t) remind you of a bagpiper starting up. Before you can get a useful tune out of bagpipes, you first have to fill the bag with air, and it takes some time to do it. So, for example, cafes, won’t be full until people venture out into the high street, and people have got used to the convenience of shopping at home.

Whether the high street, decimated by the collapse of many major retail names, is able to attract people back to shopping trips anytime soon is a serious question. Lunchtime footfall is also likely to be down as office work has moved, probably for the long term, away from full-time office working. The head of investment bank Goldman Sachs has said this week that he thinks that working from home is a temporary aberration and that he will expect everyone to be back in his offices. He cited team culture and innovation as the reasons behind his view, although others may take a more cynical view. Whatever his reasoning, he’s currently in the minority and surveys have consistently shown that people want to spend at least part of their time working from home in the future. The National Trust has announced this week that it wants to run a project to plant blossom trees in town and city centres throughout Britain. The spectre of Goldman Sachs workers and very few others gamboling through city centre avenues of blossom every spring belongs in a Terry Gilliam film, but the serious point is as to how town centres are redesigned and re-purposed to stop them being ghostly and unattractive. I suspect that the Budget will do no more than apply an elastoplast to the more obvious scars for the moment, but it’s a major project that will require real imagination and a lot of public funding.

It’s also been an interesting week form a constitutional point of view. The Queen has positively urged people to be vaccinated, a message which is rare in both its ambit and its directness as the monarch generally exercises her constitutional role in providing policy guidance from behind the scenes. We have also seen the acceleration of public blood letting in Scotland where it seems that Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon are now inextricably locked in a fight to the political death. It remains to be seen how events will impact on the SNP and, more widely, on the cause of Scottish independence.

Last weekend, Everton won at the home of Liverpool for the first time in my daughter’s lifetime, and, to give this some context, my daughter left school last year. It will be hard to top that this weekend, but I’ll do my best.

Have a good weekend.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner