The Daily Telegraph

Lockdown created long-term problems for business

Straight-talking common sense from the front line of management

- SIR JOHN TIMPSON ASK JOHN Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high street services provider Timpson. Send him an email at

‘Two obedient years of being ruled by the state, supported by the odd sneaky neighbour, has taken its toll’

Q As a small retailer, I’m lucky to have survived the last two years. But apart from the hike in energy costs, things seem to be getting back to where we were in 2019. Looking back, will we see the lockdown as a major long term disruption or simply a temporary change in circumstan­ces?

A Do you remember talking about “the new normal”? In March 2020, it seemed life would never be the same again. Lockdown was seen as the catalyst for a new digital world with everybody working from home and shopping online. Pundits predicted the death of the high street.

The next few weeks are critical as we experience another nudge towards that new normal. There are more signs that commuters and shoppers are back in town. After the first proper holiday season since 2019, it seems more people are going back to the office.

Since the start of September we’ve seen more customers in our shops. The first proper “back to school” season for three years produced an exceptiona­l demand for key cutting (historical­ly, in the first week of September we cut 10pc more keys than any other week of the year). It has also been a busy time for watch repairs – correcting holiday problems caused on the beach or in the pool – and we experience­d a sudden surge in dry cleaning, concrete evidence that office-bound executives have abandoned their summer shorts and are returning to the office in a suit, shirt and tie.

For the last two Septembers, with fewer holidays, schools disrupted by Covid and city executives working from home, we struggled to match our expectatio­ns. It was a tense time.

When all our shops were shut in March 2020 we wrote an extremely pessimisti­c forecast, prayed, crossed our fingers, negotiated with the bank and carried out a once-in-a-lifetime cost-cutting campaign. It is such a relief to find that our services and our business principles are still relevant in life after Covid.

But we never anticipate­d some of the social implicatio­ns caused by lockdown that may have a lasting effect on people’s lives. It wasn’t that long ago when we were restricted to an hour’s exercise a day, observed “the rule of six” and, when allowed back on a golf course, couldn’t hold the flag or touch our opponent’s ball! What a compliant country we were.

Two obedient years of being ruled by the state, supported by Covid rangers and the odd sneaky neighbour, has taken its toll.

Many businesses were saved by furlough. But when the scheme ended, I expected a big rise in unemployme­nt. Instead, we are short of staff. Having spent over a year being paid to stay at home, it isn’t surprising that some people, nearing retirement, packed up work for good, thus (together with the Brexit exodus) creating a labour shortage, which fed inflation at the same time as soaring energy costs.

This was one of lockdown’s unexpected consequenc­es that are creating unfortunat­e aspects of the new normal.

There’s evidence that some of us are losing the will to meet face-to-face. It’s so easy to have a chat online, we now prefer conference calls on Zoom, meet our doctors on Microsoft Teams and forge new relationsh­ips via internet dating.

But humans thrive on personal contact so for many a life spent solely with a computer for company harms their mental health. It’s alarming to find that some recent recruits who work from home were interviewe­d online and have never actually met their boss.

Since lockdown, I live by my mobile phone – it stores my Man City tickets and credit card. Most shop assistants hand over a contactles­s card machine – without saying a word. I no longer carry cash (apart from £2 to pay Brian, when I lose at golf). If my phone runs out of battery, life falls apart.

Two weeks ago I met the founder of a charity that supports teenagers at risk due to a range of adverse childhood experience­s. Since Covid came, she has seen a significan­t drop in the number of children being referred to them for help. Good news, you might think. But dig deeper and you find a serious cause for concern.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education select committee, estimates that since the pandemic about 100,000 children have almost entirely disappeare­d from our education system. These often vulnerable children have slipped off the radar and no longer meet the teachers, social workers and youth volunteers who would have noticed they are at risk and referred them to the charity for help. These are the kids who are most likely to fail exams, become unemployed and go to prison.

Perhaps you will like the new normal, but I probably prefer the old one.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom