COVID-19 member blog: “How does one even begin to address what we are experiencing?”
I read somewhere that now there is only yesterday, today and tomorrow. That is true. Weeks and weekends have come and gone with no discernible break between them. Allow me to share some observations with you on what it has been like working for a local authority, and then some thoughts on how we move forward.
I am thankful that we did quite a lot of contingency planning and annual resilience training, even though our worst-case scenarios have proved modest compared to this. It meant that at least we had structures, procedures and tools in place. However, just how quickly we moved from business as usual to an emergency footing amazed me. Basically we all turned up for our normal Monday management team, and within minutes without anyone actually making any sort of formal declaration, we were in a completely different mode. We just knew.
Looking back I am also impressed at how much we changed very, very quickly. Within a few days we had over 1,000 extra people working remotely. Suddenly we are in a whole new world where ‘Teams’ ‘Zoom’ into ‘Hangouts’ to find out ‘WhatsApp’. I cannot help but wonder if a contracted out service could have responded in the way that our in-house IT teams did.
We closed most of our buildings in a single 24-hour period. We relocated essential – and socially-distanced – staff into those that had to stay open, and moved to an emergency only housing repairs operation. And we produced Covid-19 appropriate safe working method statements for all sorts of things so services could continue.
We have created a pool of hundreds of employees who are now volunteering to do other roles. Our drivers are delivering food and medicines. We have established local humanitarian community hubs and from a standing start built a local support service for hundreds of families.
Within a couple of weeks we have distributed over 900 grants to small local firms in desperate straits. That was only possible because our architects and surveyors – whose capital works were all stood down – came to the aid of our swamped enterprise support team, and turned their hand to grant application processing.
This is our ‘now’ but I said I would ponder on how we move forward. Sad, grim and awful though it is, the current situation will change and eventually end. All current situations do. It will go through phases. Eventually lockdown will end, because we will reach a position where the need to do so outweighs the awful consequences. Then we will have to grapple with how to manage that whole new risk profile. Then, at some point, there will, eventually, be a vaccine. We will move from dealing with Covid-19 to dealing with the consequences of Covid-19.
The projections suggest that the economic impacts will be the worst that we have ever seen in our lifetime. Those most dependent on hospitality, leisure, tourism and retail will suffer most first. Depending on duration and severity, other sectors will follow. The data we have suggests that those on the lowest incomes, poorer families, the young and women, are over-represented in the worst-hit sectors, are the least resilient, and will ultimately be hit hardest.
One can only speculate at this time on how much retail and leisure ever reappears in our cities and towns. What happens to the commercial property market now we know that very few people actually need to be in the office is anyone’s guess, but I do not want my pension fund invested in it. Shifting people onto sustainable public transport just took on a whole new level of difficulty.
As economic development professionals this is not just the challenge of our lives. It is the defining challenge of the age. What we do over the next few years will shape the future for a generation after us. The thinking about how we shape a new economy, one that better recognises and attaches appropriate value to what is most fundamental, that redefines places and spaces, to get us to a new and better ‘normal’. That is the job now. Let’s get started.
The author is a senior economic development and regeneration professional working for a local authority, and a member of the IED