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A Christmas Carol

April 17, 2024 by Alistair Enser

In this, my final article of the year, I ask what could have been done differently in 2020 and what 2021 might look like, with a little help from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

A time for reflection

Looking back on my posts this year, I started writing in March about the need for planning and preparation, and I gazed into the future as we considered what the new normal would bring. As businesses pivoted, I considered those who were thriving, or merely surviving, and how technology could form a bridge for organisations keen to manage business uncertainty and cross over into more profitable areas of activity. I discussed various strategies for how the world could be safely opened up again, and what it might look like, when it did.

I asked readers whether they would accept the privacy trade-offs required by adopting track and trace technology, or whether Police might use ANPR and mobile phone tracking to control travel in and out of locked down areas. Most recently, I asked you to consider whether vaccination passports represent a way for venues to reopen safely.

Earlier in the year, most people I surveyed wouldn’t exchange their personal details at the door of a pub and wouldn’t give up their privacy for a pint. By mid-summer 65% were happy for their mobile to be tracked and nearly eight out of ten (79%) were happy for authorities to use ANPR to remind travellers if they moved between tiered zones. The results are in from my survey last week , and I was interested to see that 68% of readers support the use of vaccine passports, albeit with different requirements about how the information may be used.

Such glowing support is a far cry from where we started this year and suggests that we are increasingly prepared to call on technology, systems and procedures that we would previously have discounted in order to beat the pandemic.

Our Christmas at present

And beat it, we must. With the announcement last weekend of a new fourth tier of restrictions for London and the South East of England, millions of people will be spending Christmas at home this year, unable to see family and friends. At the time of writing, it was rumoured that the tier may even be extended to England as a whole after Christmas, as is already the case in Scotland and Wales and soon to be Northern Ireland.

The current, more stringent tier four rules came only a few days after the Prime Minister said it would be “inhuman’ to keep families part this Christmas, and reflect the Government’s fears about how fast a new mutation of the virus is spreading; in Thurrock, Essex, Covid-19 cases have risen by 200% in a week.

At the time of writing, the UK’s main border with France and the continent, Dover, is closed in response to French authorities’ refusal to accept transport traffic from the UK. A large and growing list of some forty countries has banned arrivals by air from the UK on the basis that the new mutation of the virus is considered a considerable threat.

Looking to the past

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, whether in our personal lives, in business, or when one considers how a pandemic should be managed.

Allegedly, Wuhan – where SARS-CoV-2 originated – has no cases of Covid-19. It’s not just China that seems to have handled the crisis with greater success. The impact of the pandemic in France, Germany, Japan and Australia appears to have been less pronounced than in the UK, whether in terms of lives lost, cases of infection, and drop in GDP. And that’s without considering the UK’s lack of suitable PPE at the start of pandemic, and a track and trace system that is not reaching enough people.

Is the lack of current infection in Wuhan down to the fact that the city was subject to gruelling 76-day lockdown earlier in the year when the virus first emerged? The UK finally went into lockdown in March following a debate around whether we could afford to close the economy for a few weeks. If we had our time again would we instead close our doors  firmly for eight weeks under stricter rules than we saw at the time, with travel in and out of the UK banned and strict fines for not obeying the rules? In effect, would a Chinese-style lockdown have served us better?

With the benefit of hindsight we might have accepted a stricter lockdown at the time, in the knowledge that it may have meant further lockdowns were unnecessary. Doing so might have had caused less damage to the economy; have had less of an impact on NHS waiting lists for routine operations; caused less disruption to children’s education; and had less of an effect on mental health and wellbeing. As with business, there are many parallels here,  where often the difficult decisions, taken with expediency are the one that have the greatest impact .

What future awaits us?

Everyone wants to be free of 2020, so let’s look ahead to 2021.

Could we still be in lockdown in April 2021? While the thought isn’t appealing, it’s certainly possible. Even with stricter tier four lockdowns and an extension of these across England after Christmas, it may take many weeks before the infection rate, R, drops sufficiently below the required rate of one to translate into fewer infections, occupied hospital beds and deaths. And, with even a subdued Christmas under our belt, the typically long and cold January and February nights are going to be even harder than usual under lockdown.

Separately, the UK is reaching crunch time in the Brexit negotiations and images of queues of lorries at Dover are an unwelcome reminder of the potential disruption that ‘no deal’ will bring. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I wrote at the end of last year about how Brexit negotiations were caught on the treatment of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. At the time, I argued that technology could play an important role and I still believe that will be the case. But barriers to a deal now include agreement on fishing rights in UK waters, as well as guaranteeing a level playing field for state aid. There is much to play for and a lot to be concerned about.

Reasons to be cheerful

There is room for optimism, however. A deal with the EU is not only possible but highly preferable at a time when the country is under such stress. Separately, around 500,000 people in the UK have now been vaccinated. And, while frustrating, there is widespread support for lockdown and other measures to control the pandemic, something the authorities might be wise to reflect on.

But, what really gives me hope is the fact that, at the end of one of the hardest years that anyone can remember, we know we can do another stretch under lock and key, and we have learned how to remain operational. While I have genuine sympathy for those areas of the economy, such as hospitality, that have been seriously impacted by lockdown, I am amazed by how quickly and successfully many organisations, including Reliance High-Tech, have adapted to lockdown and remained operational in the face of adversity.

This was possible for two reasons, and understanding these will stand the UK in good stead as we enter a new year. The adoption of technology has accelerated to such an extent that decades of progress have been made in just a few months. People have risen to the occasion, innovated personally and discovered new ways of working, unearthing efficiencies and identifying new opportunities as a result.

So, while the short term may look challenging, the earth is still spinning and one way or another the economy will enter a new chapter after December 31st.  Let’s take the tough decisions, be decisive and go for success. Perhaps as we dig deep and channel our resilience we will arrive in Spring with an even brighter outlook.

I wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Stay Safe!