Published: 06:00, 26 March 2020
| Updated: 10:32, 26 March 2020
As the coronavirus outbreak forces people across Kent to change the way they live their lives, leading business forecaster Professor Richard Scase predicts how the county will adapt when we emerge from the outbreak…
The coronavirus is not a temporary event.
Of course, there will be antidotes that scientists will discover. But there will be long-term effects of this pandemic that will permanently change the ways we live and work.
Out of these will come new personal, career and business opportunities.
Twenty years ago I was commissioned by the Cabinet Office to write a vision for the UK in year 2010.
I foresaw a future economy, health service and education system driven by the then emerging internet and online services.
The internet has brought great changes to the ways we live and work.
What the coronavirus crisis is doing is bringing about a permanent revolution, based upon what the internet started.
Here are some examples…
1. Home working
For years the internet has allowed there to be remote, flexible and home working. There has been some take-up but not so much as there should have been.
Why not? Because too many of our bosses have queried if they can trust us to work in this much more independent, self-managed way.
The outcome is they insist we have expensive commutes from towns and villages in Kent into London offices.
There they can watch us log on and work on our projects, just as we can easily do at home.
The coronavirus crisis has imposed a great experiment upon our employers. It has forced them to allow their employees to work from home.
Out of this they will see that workers can be just as productive as working in expensive premises in London and other cities. When this crisis is over, work patterns are unlikely to be the same again.
There is huge potential for working from home in the public sector, both at national and local government levels. If we want better services at lower cost this is the only way forward.
From employees’ point of view, working from home and other forms of remote working allows them to make savings on their present daily commutes.
Also, less crowded trains and busy motorways.
2. Digitalised NHS
The over-stretched NHS wants to offer improved services through digitalisation.
The barrier is mainly patient resistance. The present crisis is forcing people to experiment with a more online NHS.
This will break down traditional patient thinking and allow the system to do what it wants to do.
To provide a more cost-effective and even more patient-focused service.
Higher education is big business in Kent, both as employers as well as contributors to the local economy.
The teaching and study of arts subjects has not fundamentally changed for centuries. Today, students still go to lecture theatres and listen to their professors as they did in the past.
The only change is that lecture notes are now also downloaded. Lecturers with their notes conveyed in large lecture theatres no longer have a monopoly on scholarship.
The coronavirus has forced many universities to send students home and to study online. This will lead them to question the need to spend high fees on residential full-time study.
Universities will be compelled to change the balance of their online/offline teaching offer.
The retail sector has already been hard-hit by the impact of the internet. But this has mainly affected major national retailers.
Our high streets are changing and will become unrecognisable over the years to come.
The coronavirus is forcing smaller businesses to embrace the new online technologies in their marketing, selling and procurement strategies.
Until now, too many have had their heads in the sand.
During the present crisis, many shoppers for the first time have discovered the convenience of online shopping.
Some of these will return to their old ways, but the majority will not.
The big supermarkets will decline, as will shopping malls and shopping centres.
Even pubs will change. With their forced closures many will become online deliverers of food and drinks. Some of them, quick off the mark, are already offering this service.
Face-to-face trading in small specialist, personal services stores will be the dominant feature of our high streets in the future.
Their markets, with tough competitors and demanding customers, will force them to provide improved sales delivery.
They will be forced to invest in staff training, something that so many small traders are reluctant to do.
5. EU supply chain
The coronavirus is a further nail in the coffin of the integrated European project. National borders across Europe are being shut down.
It is doubtful the free movement of goods and services will return to pre-coronavirus levels.
Migration started pressures for moves in this direction. The present crisis will consolidate the trend.
Businesses in Kent could benefit as they replace European supply chains for the purchase of products with those domestically provided.
Reliability of delivery services, coupled with digitalisation of their inventory processes, will lead to the adoption of new business models, especially in the small business sectors.
6. Changing habits
The internet introduced many changes in our working, business and personal lives.
It was a technological innovation that ‘nudged’ us online. The coronavirus, through the direct threat of illness and government laws, is forcing us instead of ‘nudging’ us to change our habits of a lifetime.
It is even forcing us to respect the needs of our elders - something that has long-been neglected in our society. In this there is the return of voluntary, community and unpaid mutual aid.
The closure of bars, pubs and restaurants may be devastating for the businesses and workers in the hospitality sector, but it is compelling us to be more home-centred and family-focused.
A legacy of the coronavirus pandemic may mark the end of the consumer society with its emphasis on ‘me’, ‘me’ and even more ‘me’.
It could be it will force us to rethink our values and to become more caring and altruistic to others.
Even the government’s offer to underwrite up to 80% of earnings for workers for a three-month period if they are retained in their jobs suggests a more caring approach.
All of which means every cloud has a silver lining, however small.