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From furlough to mask-wearing: can we ever return to normal?

7:30pm, Wednesday 22 July, online, via Zoom

How best can work and life return to normal post-Covid? On the one hand, churches, pubs,  restaurants and beauty salons have reopened and the Westminster government is slowly urging people to return to their workplaces. Gyms, swimming pools and cinemas will all reopen in the coming days. On the other hand, the recent announcement of compulsory wearing of face-masks in shops, and a slew of new restrictions and procedures at all venues, seem to signal that the ‘new normal’ will be very different to pre-pandemic life.

Ministers and others argue that these measures, including wearing masks, both protect others and reassure people that getting out again is safe. But others counter that such measures are more likely to make people worry, reinforcing a sense that we should be fearful about interactions with other people in public.

Clearly, many do still fear a return to normal. Many pubs and restaurants have been busy in the weeks after reopening, and the tragic registers of daily deaths and new infections are trending down. But broader economic indicators are sluggish, at best. Public transport use remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, and many city centres and workplaces are deserted. It seems that a widespread culture of fear is a real barrier to normal life returning – despite the prospect of mass unemployment if everyday life, and the economy, stays in suspended animation. The ferocity of the polarised discussion in relation to mask-wearing also suggests that fear is now a major factor in society.

Of course, there are positive indicators too. Many towns and cities have come alive with al fresco dining. Barbers chat about the return of football with punters. Some people are heading off to warmer climes on holiday, and lots of families and friends are starting to meet each other once more. But theatres, football grounds and concert halls are not allowed to open to the public, the government continues to advise against gatherings, and water-cooler conversations and the after-work drink seem a long way off.
Amid these uncertainties, will normality ever return? Many argue we will have to learn to live with the ‘new normal’, accepting facemasks, elbow-bumps, and under-filled pubs. Some even celebrate it, arguing that office life is dreary compared with the extra time to spend with family and friends that working from home allows. Some employers, perhaps eyeing cost-savings on offices, are preparing to make working from home permanent. What’s more, the avoidance of city centres has reinvigorated many suburbs.

But there is a fine line between taking sensible precautions and forgetting what real sociability means. Chance encounters, spontaneity, rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens are all aspects of normal social life that together form the intangible feeling of genuine community.

Do we need to make a more full-throated case for a return to normal life, or is this too risky when the virus still causes deaths across the world? Should we celebrate the chance to re-evaluate social norms and working practices, or do we risk leading narrower, more parochial lives? What exactly has been missing during the lockdown – and why should we care?

Listen to the debate


Dr Clare Gerada, medical director, NHS Practitioner Health Programme; former chair, Royal College of General Practitioners

Ben Habib, Founder and CEO, First Property Group PLC; chairman, Brexit Watch; organiser, UnLocked; former Brexit Party MEP (2019 – 2020)

Norman Lewis, technology and innovation consultant; former director, PWC

Rebecca Lowe, investment company research director; former director, FREER; co-founder, Radical

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, columnist, Telegraph; vice-president, Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau (JJRI); regular commentator on French TV

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