The coronavirus pandemic and resulting UK lockdown may have turned our worlds upside down, but many experts see this as an opportunity for positive change. We asked our panel to talk us through the challenges we'll face – and how we'll get through them – when the doors reopen. Here are their predictions.
We’ll Use Our Home Advantage
It’s seems that nothing gets people moving like having their daily activities restricted. Now that we’ve learned to break a sweat at home, the trend will be going nowhere fast…
At the time of writing this article, 64% of fitness sites around the world were closed, according to global platform FitnData. An as-yet-unknown number of those will never reopen. Industry body UKActive has warned that a third of the country’s facilities – 2,800 of them – may collapse without government intervention.
“There’s going to be a bit of a shakeout,” says David Minton, director of FitnData’s parent reporting company, Leisure DB, and an industry veteran of three decades. Just like the rest of us, Minton has been working out at home, while kettlebells and yoga mats – to quote the Economist – have been “selling like toilet paper”. But now that we’ve got all the gear, not to mention an endless stream of ideas, will we even need to go back to gyms?
“Physical spaces will certainly have to work to convince us to go back by offering smaller class sizes and a reassurance of hygiene,” says Victoria Buchanan, senior futures analyst at strategic foresight consultancy the Future Laboratory. We might even have to book in time slots to prevent overcrowding. But Minton is adamant that, as social animals, we will flock back to gyms: “Group exercise will almost certainly come out on top.”
The fitness industry bucked the downward trend of the last recession, and budget operators such as PureGym took advantage of the newly vacant and cheap commercial property. This time, however, low-cost gyms could be hit the hardest, says Minton. They’ll leave gaps to be filled by small, hyper-local set-ups that are more tuned into the area’s demographic: less one-size-fits-all, more community-based.
We don’t just need opportunity to exercise. We need motive, or fitspiration. Personal training studios could profit from their strong relationships with a limited clientele, with those that have the space expanding into small-group classes. Buchanan predicts growth in virtual PT consultations, which ensure accountability but slip more easily into our schedules.
Faced with the sudden closure of their physical spaces with seemingly no end in sight, many operators hastily launched digital offerings. But outside of lockdown, the two are not mutually exclusive: tech can be used to engage with and keep gym members. With trackers such as the Apple Watch, Oura Ring and Whoop now programmed to spot symptoms of COVID-19, tech might even be what enables us to go back to gyms, by telling us whether or not we’re infectious.
Home workouts were already experiencing a resurgence, driven by next-gen hardware such as Peloton, Mirror and Tonal. But while they might be new innovations, the workouts are not. Being able to get your fitness HIIT in your living room is convenient. But as with working from home, sometimes you’re virtual high-fiving, sometimes you’re just getting on with the job, and sometimes you’d rather get dressed and go to a more conducive environment with like-minded people – without your kids.
There will be pain, but there could also be gain. A Sport England survey found that 25% of us are working out in lockdown. Gym membership penetration is a mere 15%. That means there are a lot of prospective sign-ups. More than half of us are taking a daily walk, too, and more of us than ever appreciate the physical and mental benefits of being active.
“For the first time since the Second World War that I’m aware of, the government is encouraging you to exercise every day,” says Minton. With good health linked to positive COVID-19 outcomes, the industry should more than recover: “It really is survival of the fittest."
We'll Learn to Cook Creatively
As supermarket stocks dwindle and out-of-season fruit and veg becomes harder to come by, we’ll make do and amend our recipes
The pandemic is a reminder of the delicacy of our food needs, says Professor Tim Lang, founder of City University’s Centre for Food Policy and author of the well-timed book Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them – which sold out with the bread flour.
Panic buying quickly became a tabloid trope, but data shows that customers were largely picking up just a few extra items. That small change in buying habits was enough to upset the apple cart of the big chains’ “just-in-time” model, in which supermarkets display almost all of their stock and top up with daily deliveries. This keeps costs low but is ripe for disruption.
We won’t enjoy such a wealth of food options for much longer. “Some things will go short,” says Lang. Dry goods will be less affected, but fresh produce – much of which comes from Europe, or further afield in Africa – could be hard to get without a global movement of goods and migrant workers to pick it all. Despite our benign conditions and fertile land, Britain is dependent on the fruits of other countries’ labour year-round. “Seasonal” could soon literally mean seasonal, and “tropical” could once again become truly exotic.
Supermarkets may carry a smaller range of more reliably replenishable lines, from UK manufacturers where possible. But apart from “leave it to Tesco et al”, there’s no real plan, says Professor Lang. As he argues in an open letter to Defra, supply chains should prioritise nutrition and horticulture should be doubling or trebling planting. That would also help to create jobs and meet climate change goals. Otherwise, it’ll be business mostly as usual – comfort food for some, not sustenance for all.
Flexitime Will Go Full-time
Wherever we lay our laptops, that’s our office. Companies will have to loosen their policies on flexible working
We won’t all continue to work remotely, but we will work more flexibly. That’s not so revolutionary for women, who have long done so to accommodate care for their children (and sometimes parents). But men have hitherto been reluctant, as Cary Cooper’s studies at Manchester University have shown, because they were worried it would damage their careers. “Well, now that’s gone,” he says.
Dialling in will be “totally acceptable”, but we’ll still come into the office for the big meeting or the kind of team building that can’t be done remotely. Head offices will be skeleton-crewed flagships, with workers, unmoored from major cities, docking in more regularly at smaller regional outposts.
Business travel that isn’t essential will disappear almost entirely. “Employees will realise that video conferencing can be more flexible, family-friendly and environmentally sustainable,” says Johann Fortwengel, senior lecturer at King’s Business School. “Employers will realise that it can be more economical.”
However, working from home doesn’t automatically mean a better balance with life: after all, remote employees tend to put in more hours. “You can video call, you can send tonnes of emails,” says Cooper, who predicts that the role of line managers will change significantly to include monitoring employees’ mental health in the absence of body language. And it won’t only be so-called snowflakey millennials who want to work for companies that promote well-being, “where people feel recognised, have some autonomy, work flexibly – all of that”.
Companies will in turn replace vulnerable human assets with more digitisation, automation and AI. That can be a good thing – for example, online teaching and economies of scale may make higher education more geographically and financially accessible, says Fortwengel – who isn’t worried about his job. “I think this moment presents great opportunities,” he declares.
Digital Tech Will Connect Us
Far from an antisocial habit, staring at our screens all day has brought many of us closer together in recent months. But will we keep it up IRL?
Somehow, our social calendars runneth over in lockdown: drinks, cocktail hours, pub quizzes, group workouts, game sessions and film nights, all via video-calling services that we’d rarely used or never even heard of.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says New York-based tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar – over Zoom, naturally. Video chat services have long been available. What we didn’t have was “this gaping hole in our feeling of equilibrium”.
Back when we got our fill of human interaction every day, we’d text, not talk; come evening, we practically craved social distancing. But now, we find ourselves with an “emotional deficit”, an urgency to connect – and a talking point.
But tech can only go so far. “I never finish a Zoom call and think, ‘That was really the same thing,’” says Polgar. The “Zoom boom” has brought with it the “Zoom hangover”: mental burnout after one too many video calls. They’re still a “weak facsimile” of IRL face time, says Polgar. Hence our inventiveness: we’re trying to add “feeling”. Haptic feedback to simulate a handshake, or a hug, is one prospective touch. Backgrounds of busy pubs and bars to give the sensation of being out will also be popular. And we’ll even design our real life interiors for online socialising: proud possessions coincidentally visible. (“Oh, this?”)
How we use tech could flag whether we’re in a bad place through “digital phenotyping”: inferring your internal state from your behaviour on your devices, like the time of day or night that you’re using them, or your typing speed. And video-calling can facilitate swift intervention. “Digital tools for mental wellness are also going to explode,” says Polgar.
Therapy on your own couch may partially diffuse the “powder keg” of isolation and economic uncertainty. But again, Polgar counsels against it fully replacing human contact: “There’s still something to a handshake, to a hug.”
Your Doctor Will Zoom You, Now
The pandemic has proven our NHS both invaluable and overburdened. Finding new ways to manage our wellbeing remotely could ease the strain
Vaccines normally take five years, sometimes decades, to develop. One for coronavirus could be ready this year. That’s a pretty big “could”, though. And even then, exactly how long any vaccine protection would last is not guaranteed.
Without a vaccine, major resurgences could still be occurring in five years, so in the meantime we’ll likely social-distance to varying degrees of strictness. Those measures could be eased by contact tracing via an app, which monitors other users who you come into proximity with and alerts you if they become infected or vice versa. It may also function as an “immunity passport”. And getting our act together on mass testing might be an idea.
Whenever the dust settles sufficiently, there needs to be “the mother of all inquiries into how government and its agencies have handled the emergency”, says John Appleby, director of research and health economist at the Nuffield Trust. A key question will be whether the NHS’s bare-bones efficiency pre-pandemic was in fact under-resourcing by another name. “I suspect the public will be willing to spend more money on health care,” he says.
A 1% rise in National Insurance to fund the NHS adequately would be applauded as enthusiastically as clap for carers. The knee-jerk reaction would be to pump it all into intensive care beds to cover for the possibility of another pandemic (our health service didn’t have enough), and away from places where it’s definitely needed. “So, there’ll have to be some balancing of that,” Appleby notes.
Tele-medicine will ring the changes. Outpatient appointments have vastly increased over the past decade: 100 million per year in England alone, a country of 56 million people. Appleby says that it’s probably not necessary for all of those to be conducted face to face, or to have a follow-up: “At least, not a third, or fourth, or fifth.” Tele-medicine could similarly relieve the pressure on A&E, where a quarter of the ever-rising attendances are unnecessary.
GPs, traditionally among the most, well, traditional services, will also see you now virtually. Appleby’s GP friends and colleagues are “radically rethinking” how they do things, as is the wider NHS. “Some parts of the service have needed this jolt to get them going,” he says.
It should also push us to train more doctors and nurses. Unlike, say, Germany (which has only reinforced national stereotypes with its efficient handling of the pandemic), the government caps the number of medical school places and so restricts the supply of doctors; the NHS has been forced to recruit from overseas as a sticking plaster to fill a massive number of vacancies.
Beyond shortages of beds, equipment and staff, the pandemic has exposed the limitations of medicine, with heroic hospital workers only able to relieve symptoms until COVID-19 sufferers hopefully battle through. One positive outcome could be a different attitude to public health messages and personal responsibility: looking after ourselves.
“We all know we should exercise and eat our greens,” says Appleby. The problem, in economics speak, is that we don’t “internalise” and do it – or we didn’t until soon-to-be-Sir Joe Wicks’s PE lessons hit home. “I think more people are internalising that.
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