The UK entered into one of its largest ever social experiments this weekend, with the opening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, at a time when a spike in infection has forced parts of Leicester to be locked down again. The situation we now find ourselves in is raising some thorny questions. In attempting to return to some form of normality, even one wrapped in warning tape and lined with plexiglass, we are being asked to make difficult decisions.
Leicester has been divided down strict geographic lines, with those on one side of an arbitrary line locked down, and those outside it free to continue as normal. This means that one residential street is literally cut in half, with residents at one end forced to stay inside; while those at the other end remain free to do as they please. One primary school Headteacher expressed frustration that he is allowed to accept pupils from inside the boundary, but not those who live but 500 metres away.
Here’s another example. So called Air bridges have arrived, and those in England who wish to fly to France, Spain or Italy (but strangely, not Portugal?!), can do so in the confidence that quarantine rules won’t apply to them on their arrival, or return. But the same is not true for the Scots or the Welsh. But what’s to stop travellers driving from Edinburgh, for example, to take a flight out of Newcastle? Nothing, it would seem to me.
The Government warned the public not to over-indulge and undo all the good that has been done as the pubs reopened this weekend. Judging by some of the pictures of excess in the press, this was not the case, and in fact many appeared to trade not only their privacy, but their safety and dignity too! But, while the scenes of revellers in London and Leeds are troubling, I am not sure they are typical to the behaviour of most of the UK.
Like many, I was tempted and became part of this large scale ‘social experiment’. Fortunate enough to secure a restaurant booking in London, I had to pre-book and provide personal contact details and face a temperature test at the door. I have to say that I was greeted with a great level of professionalism from a very popular venue, running at a 40 per cent capacity, with strict rules on table service only. Meanwhile, walking through Chinatown, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, I saw nothing like the hoards reported to be in Soho. That said, I did encounter many pubs that were not opening until the 6 July and can report that while some were open and limiting their numbers, they were not all collecting ‘track and trace’ information from customers.
Outside of the capital, many returned to their local for a pint this weekend, or their favourite local restaurant. For most hospitality trades, reopening is absolutely vital if they have any chance of surviving. But the experience is very different from earlier this year. Social distancing is in place, standing at the bar is banned, as is the atmospheric buzz of raised voices. Staff numbers are limited while the businesses struggle to balance risk, safety and enough volume to make the venture commercially viable. And don’t forget the requirement to record details of all those who enter to support NHS track and trace efforts.
Let’s be honest here – this raises a philosophical question around privacy and GDPR.
According to survey after survey, the UK is rightly protective of its data privacy. Indeed, the public is so protective of its civil liberties that repeated efforts to introduce a national ID card have failed. GDPR, and the strict requirements it places on organisations that capture and use data, still apply despite the Coronavirus pandemic, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office, even if it is taking a more pragmatic approach.
Given all this, will the same individuals who have guarded their privacy to date be happy to provide their personal details in exchange for a pint or a meal out? Let’s see…
Importantly, how will pubs and restaurants meet the requirements of GDPR and ensure that the data they collect is managed correctly? On a more basic level, what is to stop people simply giving false names? The answers to these, and may other questions, remain unclear.
Taking a wider view, other trade-offs are being demanded by the current situation. Do we agree to testing in the workplace for potential infection (even if, as I have written the technology can only be part of a broader solution?)
Are we happy for our employers to track our movement around the workplace to ensure that we, and our co-workers, remain safely apart, and can be traced in case someone becomes infected and everyone they have come into contact with needs to be informed?
In fact, do we support the use of technology to help create a safer environment, or not?
It will be interesting to see the result of the poll I have posted.
Of course, the vast majority of businesses have risen to the occasion and put in superhuman efforts to convert their premises to make social distancing possible. As has been seen throughout the pandemic, innovation has come to the fore, and as many landlords have reimagined their pubs to permit one-way traffic and safe distanced booths, the development of innovation continues.
Only this week I read that researchers at Birmingham University have developed a way of bonding antimicrobials to steel, which kill bacteria that comes into contact with it by spiking their membranes. While untested at present with the coronavirus, when piloted on a Royal Navy ship it removed more than 95 per cent of bacteria such as E.coli and MRSA, which is resistant to many forms of antibiotics.
In the final analysis, the world is changing, we are adapting, and we all have a personal and social responsibility, but technology in many forms continues to help us. Cheers!