How those left after Covid-19 skipped the party and went straight to the hangover
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look back and dismiss the widely held belief in 2021 that a boom period would follow the Covid-19 pandemic. Having been through so much, people were told to expect a ‘roaring twenties’ in marked contrast to the dismal start to the decade. They deserved it.
The 455 days that the UK spent under lockdown between 23 March 2020 and 21 June 2021 gave rise to the belief that communal suffering would be rewarded by good times ahead. Commentators at the time drew on supposed historical precedent in the form of the 1920s, the decade that followed the Spanish Flu, when developments as various as the invention of the assembly line, the embrace of jazz and the emergence of surrealism resulted in an economic boom in developed economies, as well as a relaxation of restrictive social mores, the discovery of new personal freedoms and new forms of cultural expression.
It is entirely understandable that those who lived through Covid-19 longed for a period of economic growth, exuberance and advancement fuelled by excess consumer savings, the demand for pleasures denied during the pandemic, and a government that pledged to invest in environmental technology and ‘build back better.’
Indeed, optimism for the future may have provided a useful means of coping with a terrible, once-in-a-lifetime-yet-happened-to-us event. As early as May 2021 it was apparent that the pandemic had killed more than three times the amount of people officially accounted for, and the mental and physical deprivations of lockdown had left most people desperate for change — of scenery, job, or quality of life.
The immediate aftermath of the pandemic left thousands of UK businesses closed, high streets empty and train carriages in sidings. Despite fears of massive job losses, the popular furlough scheme had kept one in four workers fed and housed and had helped contribute to a significant increase in savings, especially among higher and middle-income households. The reopening of businesses following the easing of lockdown was therefore expected to cause a surge in consumer spending, heralding a boom period similar to the 1920s.
Yet the boom was not to be economic alone. From the standpoint of today, post-Covid hopes that economic growth could also be sustainable may strike us as misguided. Yet this is precisely what those who emerged from lockdown wanted, having spent months at home under skies cleared of noxious emissions. In the ‘new normal’, many of those lucky enough to have kept their jobs found themselves working from home, relishing the lack of a lengthy commute. Space on driveways was freed as cars were sold, while gardens were redesigned around often elaborate home offices. The impact of home working on travel-related emissions was immediate and significant. This led to vocal demands for measures to address climate change in the run-up to the UN’s COP26 climate change meeting in the UK in November 2021.
Social change was in the air, also. Newfound respect for the ‘essential workers’ who had kept the UK operational, but had previously been ignored by society, led to calls for inequality to be eliminated. Housebuilding programmes and local investment plans were announced. Petitions pressed for higher wages for those who had made heroic efforts in the resource-stretched National Health Service (NHS). Demands were made for more generous pay for workers at the bottom of the pile, and better conditions required for those in the country’s burgeoning ‘gig’ economy. The government promised to double down on its pre-pandemic manifesto to ‘level up’ and address the parts of the UK that had fallen behind their richer southern counterparts.
For those that had lived through the first wave of the pandemic, a better way forward was possible. Indeed, they were promised as much by their leaders at the time.
As we now know, these changes — both demanded and promised — never materialised. The decade instead saw economic hardship, conflict and increasing polarisation of debate. All that really roared in the 2020s were the crowds forced onto the streets to protest, efforts by the government of the time to make such protests illegal notwithstanding.
In hindsight, the decade’s future was written on the wall as lockdown eased. Interest rates remained at historic lows, which made servicing the massive amounts of debt created during the pandemic just about manageable. But warnings of inflationary pressure appeared, and its likely effects on an economy warming up after the cold storage of lockdown went dangerously unheeded.
On the face of it, some things looked good. In 2021, the UK saw the biggest increase in the number of billionaires in 33 years. The combined wealth of some 2,700 billionaires around the world increased by $5tn to $13tn in just 12 months, the largest increase ever reported. Yet while a handful did well out of the pandemic, as the decade progressed wider economic growth never arrived. The UK economy rebounded by 7% in 2021, but this came on the back of a 9% contraction during the pandemic and it took years before GDP returned to pre-pandemic levels. The much-anticipated consumer splurge never came, and households opted to save money instead of spending it on high streets that were husks of their former selves, or on foreign holidays which might not happen given the ever-changing list of green, amber and red destinations.
Inflation and its attendant economic difficulty weren’t unique to the UK, of course. The pandemic had disrupted supply chains worldwide, and the prices of raw materials and the shipping containers that moved them around had massively increased. Tensions between the USA and China gave rise to war over the rare metals necessary for sustainable investment — used by electric vehicles for example — while the pledges made at COP26 were soon forgotten as nations fought to stave off recession instead of investing in the green economy.
Countries around the world faced common challenges in the 2020s, but conditions unique to the UK explain why the ‘roaring twenties’ never happened there.
The UK decided to leave the EU and ‘take back control’ of its borders shortly before the pandemic arrived. Indeed, a deal now derided for being the equivalent of Chamberlain’s worthless piece of paper was ratified only months before Covid-19 successfully breached the UK’s borders, passing EU nationals travelling the other way as they abandoned the country in their thousands.
To flag that the UK was open for business in advance of a G7 meeting in June 2021, an agreement with Australia was rushed through, despite the UK’s own Department for International Trade admitting that the biggest winner from the deal would be Australia. Of course, tariff-free access to the UK for Australian farmers is now cited by many as the defining moment in the ultimate collapse of British farming and the creation of the National Commonland, where farmers are now paid to tend the land for ramblers, bikers and campers.
Despite the undoubted success of the UK’s vaccination programme, Brexit meant the country was ill-equipped to take advantage of the immediate economic uplift provided by the easing of lockdown. As the inherent contradictions of free trade and protectionism became clear, trade deals to replace the one it previously had with its largest business partner, the EU, became increasingly difficult to negotiate. UK businesses lost out or moved their operations to mainland Europe, taking jobs with them.
Covid-19 left the UK broke. Having spent £339 billion to shore up the economy during the pandemic, the government of the time was faced with a dilemma: raise taxes to address the debt, and break manifesto promises — or throw increasing amounts of money at ‘levelling up’ parts of Britain that had lent votes to the party, through expensive policies more typical of the opposition parties. Yet in so doing it risked losing a hard-won reputation for economic caution.
This, after all, was the party that had introduced austerity measures following the financial crash of 2008, actions that ultimately led to the situation where the NHS nearly collapsed trying to handle the pandemic. Even when lockdown first started easing in March 2021, a staggering 4.95 million people were on a waiting list for hospital treatment under the NHS, and the system was struggling. It was austerity too that lay behind the failure of the educational system to bring students to acceptable levels of attainment once the pandemic had passed.
In some respects, then, ‘building back better’ was always going to be difficult, given the sums required to meet the cost of the pandemic, build resilience in organisations like the NHS, and fulfil the government’s pledge to help those in the ‘red wall’ it now relied on for a parliamentary majority.
Compounding this was the lack of a broader vision of how to effect change, and the detailed policy necessary to support it. Notably, the government scrapped its Industrial Strategy at the height of the pandemic, in favour of an ill-defined ‘Plan for Growth’.
A civil service that might have provided the expertise necessary to drive a decade of growth had been hollowed out by successive governments and wasn’t valued by ministers who were largely in their jobs because they were on the right side of the Brexit argument. The ‘roaring twenties’ demanded inspired leadership. Instead, the government delivered soundbites from a newly built press centre that cost £2.6 million and was festooned with Union Jacks.
Lacking the economic growth necessary to drive innovation, the 2020s didn’t roar like the twenties or swing like the sixties. The hedonism anticipated after lockdown was fleeting, and the 2020s certainly didn’t give birth to any cultural movements of note. There was no Art Deco. A latter-day ‘jazz age’ did not emerge. The hems of dresses — a measure of consumer confidence adopted in the mid-twentieth century — neither rose nor fell. The dress itself had fallen out of favour as people stayed inside and socialised over Zoom.
For society as a whole, pleasure was postponed as people feared for the future and focused on saving money and looking after their health. The possibility of another pandemic and the misery it might bring remained at the back of the collective mind. A 2021 survey revealed that a majority were not in favour of “enjoying life today”. This represented a total reversal of opinion, and a 14% swing, during the year 2020 alone.
For teenagers and young adults, release from lockdown led to illicit parties and raves where drug use provided a release from the monotony and economic gloom. This frivolous behaviour was frowned upon by older, property-owning generations that viewed young people as super-spreaders of forever-emerging variants of the disease.
Politicians played the two groups against each other, as the government sought to shore up votes by appealing to an older, less educated and socially conservative electorate who were told that ‘woke’ young people were fixed on dismantling society, re-writing history and pulling the UK back into Europe. This never happened, of course.
Despite the promises made at COP26 in November 2021, emissions continued to increase, and efforts to keep temperature increases at under 2º centigrade by mid-century were unsuccessful.
Even the changes in working life anticipated after Covid never really came about. While offices remained empty for a while, economic hardship soon drove workers back to the workplace, where they ensured they remained visible to bosses forced to make redundancies.
Anthropologists claim that people developed new interests during lockdown. Whether taking up online exercise classes, making their own bread or just spending more time with the household, lockdown offered a chance to look at things anew. Many pledged to do things differently if and when the pandemic went away, and lockdown eased. That so many failed to do so, and the longed-for ‘roaring twenties’ never happened, is perhaps not surprising given what had been sacrificed just to get through the pandemic. In this way, the ‘new normal’ ended up looking much like the old normal.
Of course, the 1920s were followed by a period of conflict and strife, nurtured by demagoguery and nationalism that ultimately culminated in World War Two. It is unlikely that 2021’s optimists imagined similar events were only a few decades away.