Distancing, masks, and flexible work patters – welcome to the ‘new normal’

It has been hailed by the Prime Minister as the key date when life can finally return to normal.

Yet scientists and industry leaders have warned that the UK will be living with the consequences of Covid-19 long after June 21.

Masks, social distancing and Zoom calls will be part of our “new normal”, they say, while handshakes, crowded bars, and even door handles may be consigned to the past.

Social Distancing

Even after the pandemic is defeated, experts predict that people will be told to keep their distance for some time.

In a poll of leading researchers carried out by New Scientist magazine this week, the majority expected the one metre-plus social distancing rule to stay in place until at least 2022. Some suggested the rules might stay until 2023, while one expert predicted that the guidance would stay in some settings forever.

Indoor hospitality is scheduled to reopen within the next three months, but Britons may still have to wait more than a year for the return of crowded bars.

“There will be rules about drinking at the bar and rules around tables,” said Peter Ducker, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality.

“It’s going to be a long time before we see the crowds that we’ve seen before. There will be hand sanitisers, there will be distancing between tables and other things.

"While there won’t be Covid marshals, I would guess that if people are overcrowding on tables or at the bar, there’ll be people steering those situations."

Daily life will likely become more ‘hands-free’ with buttons on elevators and cash machines replaced with touchless options, experts say. "Shaking hands is probably out forever," one leading microbiologist told peers last year.

Even traditional door handles in public places may be gradually phased out to allow doors to be opened easily with shoulders and elbows.

“I think there will be a demand for a change in the way our environment is designed,” said Prof John Drury, who sits on the Government’s SPI-B advisory committee.

“Whether it’s ventilation or common surfaces, there will be a desire to do things differently.”

Masks

When Covid-19 restrictions are gone, many might expect that their masks can finally be thrown away.

However, the majority of scientists believe face coverings will be mandatory in shops and on public transport until next year and perhaps even beyond 2023, according to the New Scientist poll.

Mark Jit of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) said that even when the guidance does change, the practice may stick. 

Lockdown roadmap grid

“It will stop being legally mandated at some point, but I think there will be a permanent culture change for people to wear face masks in public, especially when they have respiratory symptoms. We already saw that happen in Asia following Sars,” he said.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, has already predicted that face coverings may be necessary next winter, even after all the UK’s adults have been vaccinated.

Work Patterns

The Covid-19 pandemic may have killed off the traditional 9-to-5 working day, according to leading employment experts.

Many say the switch to Zoom meetings and working from home will lead to a revolution in the workplace.

One leading industry figure said the post-pandemic return to work will allow employers and employees to get rid of “bad habits”.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), cited excessive stress levels, unreasonable workloads and a culture of presenteeism as “not sustainable, and not what good work should be about". 

Some employers may consider making vaccines mandatory for staff, a policy Mr Cheese said the CIPD opposes, while other significant changes will include a greater shift towards hybrid working, where employees split their time between the office and home.

“What we’ve seen is that people want to have more of a choice and a better work/life balance,” he said. “It’s also about inclusion, as there’s more opportunity to work from home for people with commitments and constraints.”

The hybrid system of working is likely to mean that public transport systems in major cities do not quite return to the passenger levels seen before coronavirus.

In London, house prices near some Tube stations are falling, but demand will continue to increase for three and four bedroom houses as employees seek space to work from home.

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