Normal life and social distancing

The Greek tourism minister appeared on the BBC’s Today programme, saying that he hoped Britons would visit his country this summer. But at the same time he suggested that social distancing rules would need to be observed, for example by separating beach chairs.

But it doesn’t take much thought to see how difficult this will be to organise. When people go on holiday, they tend to eat in restaurants, and drink in bars. The only way of enforcing social distancing rules will be to reduce the number of customers in each venue. But how will everybody be fed? And how will restaurants make a profit unless they increase their prices?

Now, it is possible that the problem will solve itself. Few people will want to take the risk of travelling until a vaccine is found. But that won’t help the Greek economy, which depends on tourism for 18% of GDP. And it could be the case that some places will be deserted and others will be crowded. So there may have to be heavy policing of the social distancing rules; not the relaxed holiday vibe tourists usually seek.

Getting back to normal will be difficult in other areas as well. Let us start with opening more stores. On my local high street the other day, the queue from Waitrose stretched 50 yards, as far as Boots, where another queue began. This worked, just. But what if the intermediate stores had been open? Each would require its own queue, and it will be very difficult to separate them. Some businesses, such as hairdressers, can limit lines by requiring customers to make appointments. But most won’t be able to do that.

What about going back to work? People going on public transport may be required to wear masks. Of course, someone will have to check at the barriers that they are doing so. In any case, my regular commute requires me to “strap-hang” as seats aren’t usually available; that requires touching surfaces that others have touched. Even if one wears gloves, the germs can be transmitted via the surface of the gloves.

At the office, social distancing may require new designs with more space between desks. But most companies will have to cope with the offices they have. That may mean a rota with workers coming in two days a week to space things out. Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, has said “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”.

“Normal life” as we have experienced it requires a lot of mingling, in shops, offices, restaurants, bars and sports grounds. It is not compatible with social distancing. Even a small resumption of economic activity will run into a lot of practical problems. That suggests prolonged economic damage.

Even when a vaccine arrives in 2021 (we hope) it may be a while before things return to normal. That explains why British Airways announced 12,000 job cuts, saying it would take several years to return to pre-pandemic passenger levels. That is even more likely if, as expected, a second infection wave hits in the autumn. And, of course, the difficulty in enforcing social distancing rules will make that second wave more likely.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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