Covid-19's attack on the UK’s culture and economy

Well that was one heck of a week…

I’ve lived in Manchester for 19 years. After studying here, I really didn’t want to leave. Job opportunities aplenty in London but it just wasn’t for me.

I’m a graphic designer and love working to promote the restaurants and bars that have made this place my home for more than half of my life.

This week has seen a new Coronavirus strain attack the core of our collective culture in a profoundly upsetting way. Most days consisted of intense emotion and passionate resolve, followed by exhaustion, 2–3am jitters and a very messy kitchen. I got up to write this at 1.45am on Saturday morning.

I wanted to get behind the NHS, stay at home and do what I do in my PJs with a nice cup of tea but when I could see that millions were facing the possibility of eviction, destitution and families starving to death, it placed myself and everyone connected with the hospitality industry in an impossible position of feeling that we had to choose between disasters.

I know how much hard work goes into running these businesses (I have done this work myself in my younger years). I know how precarious the business can be and how tight margins are for restauranteurs. That’s why I love their passion so much.

Monday started with ongoing thinking of how best to help the restaurant industry through the impending crisis. Discussions were ongoing with restaurants and other industry leaders. Difficult and emotional were already à la cart. Then on Monday evening, the Prime Minister delivered a kick in the teeth for everyone involved. Asking people to do their job whilst also telling other people not to let them do their job… so they won’t get paid for going to work, feels like putting a gun to someone’s head and telling them to write a suicide note without any pen or paper. It felt disturbing beyond words, a psychological torture delivered with an upbeat persona. To say I was “a bit angry with you that day Mr Prime Minister”, is an understatement. I don’t believe this was intentional so I hoped some sense would prevail at some point.

To deliver that news at 5.00pm after everyone has spent a whole day trying to save what we can of our sector and then be punched in the stomach is sickening. It might seem like a trivial detail, but the timing of these announcements is something we could learn from. Getting bad news out of the way early on might be a better approach. You learn to be wary of that impending daily announcement as it’s likely going to pull the rug out from everything that you’ve spent all day trying to achieve. It introduces more uncertainty which leads to more fear and panic which we all need to avoid.

By Tuesday morning, anyone who has even seen someone cough or just looks a bit pasty in the morning is fully banished from the office. Tuesday evening, I hear rumours of how many chefs and waiters have been made redundant from Hawksmoor. They were foremost in my mind for the rest of the week — seriously talented and professional people. It’s impossible to keep track of each closure and update so I keep their situation in mind as I’m trying to get my head around the scale of this assault on people’s livelihoods.

Wednesday I was awake nice and early at 4am so thought it would be a great idea to get to a 24-hour Tesco to pick up a few supplies. I checked opening times online to find that they had pulled that service to be able to restock shelves. So, I had a long day followed by a trip to a city-centre supermarket on the way home. There’s a week or so wait for home deliveries so this is just about the only option left. This was the most frightening point of the week. Everyone jostling about trying to get whatever’s not been stripped from the shelves. Finishing off standing with one very heavy basket, queuing within inches of other people all pushing past and desperate to get out of there as soon as possible.

Thursday, there’s still no news about the financial help that is needed to stop people putting themselves in harm’s way — more prolonged uncertainty and worry. I visited some clients to show some solidarity and ask how they’re getting on. It felt right to reach out to them before the inevitable lockdown. Guess what hospitality staff do when there are no customers? They clean everything obsessively. I’ve done it myself in previous hospitality jobs. It’s the best way to pass the time. Manchester’s restaurants are the cleanest they’ve ever been. They were all mostly empty so if you wanted to avoid crowds in Manchester, restaurants were the place to be this last week, not supermarkets. This is my story from my city and hearing that other places have had crowded bars, restaurants and gyms; I’m not condoning that. That is a bad idea. Crowds are bad in this situation. Avoid them if you possibly can.

Friday: our first day in our new office. I have spent most of the week trying to get our comms sorted. We celebrate by going home early. The taxi home was probably the second scariest thing I’ve done this week. Lovely chap wearing a face mask, 5 stars, £5 Uber tip and then proceeded directly to throw all my clothes in the wash and myself in the shower. For the first time this week, I’m home in time for the news.

Prime Minister Johnson delivers his bombshell which we were pretty much expecting, and in many ways hoping for. “We are collectively telling, telling all cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants to close…” no doubts anymore, no arguments, no more hypothesising, no more hacking an impossible path through the jungle. I’m sitting there chilled and open mouthed as he carries on ramming that point home, thinking “He can’t leave it at that, there has to be something, some ray of hope, you can’t tell people to go away and starve to death.” That moment felt like an eternity before Rishi Sunak delivered the news that people have been pleading for around the country. Affected wages will be paid, tax relief. Restaurants and pubs can now go on ice without fear of riots and mass graves. They can also join in the help to feed us via delivery and take out options. I was relieved and a little bit giddy. I was very glad to have a bottle of good wine stashed in the kitchen.

This isn’t so much a handout as it is an investment in industries that pay huge tax revenues into HMRC and help to fund our NHS. That horrible chilling wait was Boris’ way of giving Rishi his spotlight for the work he has obviously put in. Thank you, Chancellor Sunak. You have helped to lessen the crisis and provided some hope in a desperate situation. We still need to do much more to help self-employed workers and those on zero-hours contracts. We can all now at least get back to our Great British tradition of Tory or Labour bashing. This is one step on a long journey and we need to fight the impulse of blaming and shaming for this situation. It’s quick and easy to externalise, to say it was a “government shit show” or calling people selfish for going to restaurants, or hoarding toilet paper. All that anger doesn’t achieve anything; lobbying might, education might. As a global community, we need to get smarter and raise the level of debate. This new and likely recurring phenomenon was previously very rare. The British government have been fortunate in one sense; having information from other countries who have tested various strategies and I’m sure they have attempted to do the best they can. They are under tremendous pressure. Every decision, statement, word, can increase or decrease the survival rate of our people. If we’d had Friday’s news on Monday, the hospitality industry could have potentially saved around a million jobs that have been lost last week. Collectively we’ve hopefully saved another million that were at risk. That’s just our sector, we can only imagine what the travel and retail industry are also going through. That week of uncertainty will reduce our ability to bounce back. Many will still bounce back, but we could have done better, helped secured more livelihoods and protect more vulnerable people from the risk of contracting this disease. The interim period felt as though we had been completely abandoned by government, leaving us facing economic collapse, which could lead to even more deaths than from the virus itself. People left without homes, sanitary products and food would have been left defenceless. There are still people in this situation, and we need to do what we can to help them to be a safe and secure as possible. We need to shelter any homeless people for the duration of this outbreak now. They are vulnerable and going to be in a situation of spreading the disease merely by just trying to survive through begging. It doesn’t matter if you’re pissed off at the idea of giving out handouts or if you’re brimming with compassion and want to give them everything you can. The fact is, they are at risk and that means you are at risk too.

Look how far we have come in being able to stop this being on the scale of the Black Death or smallpox. The people facing those diseases didn’t know what was coming; we do.

Globalisation, population expansion and climate change appear to be key contributors to this type of event. These things are increasing and if we’re going to have a globalised economy in these conditions, we need to think about globalised healthcare, or at least a globalised approach to healthcare. As Alana Shaikh points out in this TedX video the World Health Organisation (WHO) are responsible for advising on healthcare strategy but they are not there to implement it. Scarcity of health workers and resources in other parts of the world are going to impact your local healthcare as a result of outbreaks not being contained.

It’s a cop-out to blame any nation for an outbreak. Circumstances around the origin of this virus need to be analysed and discussed by politicians but a similar outbreak can and probably will come from somewhere else next time. If this had originated somewhere other than China, it could have swept around the world much faster either due to lack of healthcare or the even higher mobility of the local population.

There are two cultural dynamics that are incredibly dangerous in this situation. First, is the old-fashioned attitude from business leaders who are insistent on having staff in the work-place to keep constant check over their productivity. If your staff are lazy, you should already be aware of that and do something about it. Micro-managing them will only get them to spend their time figuring out schemes to get out of doing anything productive. I was lucky to have a boss that listens; so many workers aren’t as lucky and this attitude is going to kill more people in these situations. There are still people being forced into offices and onto public transport where they have no rational need to be there. We all need to speak out against this firmly and confidently. It needs to be extinguished from society. If you have a boss like this, it’s time to start looking to move on. The second issue is a toxic-hero complex where going to work no matter what is seen as your duty to your family and society. Putting yourself in danger is not heroic if the consequence is putting those around you in even more danger.

We all need to collectively pull together to learn from this and be better prepared for future outbreaks. We owe it to our children and the culture we have inherited from our ancestors.

Polymath, Designer, Writer, Mancunian. My ideas are my children.