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How we’ve applied short-term thinking to a long-term crisis

Your house is burning down. It looks like nothing can save it. A sensible person would move into a hotel for a week or two whilst trying to find a new place to live. Or to rebuild on the embers of the old place. What you wouldn’t do is pitch a tent and live in that for a month or so in the hope that, somehow, the house will miraculously rebuild itself.

That seems to be the thinking behind the response to COVID-19, pretty much everywhere in the world. We planned for a few months, in the hope that at the end of that brief interlude, life would return to normal, with or without a vaccine.

In my town, in early June, the council put up barricades along the streets. The idea was to widen the pavements so, as shops reopened, people could pass each other whilst observing social distancing. A two-lane road became one lane. It doesn’t add much extra room for pedestrians, but it would, if rather than temporary barricades they’d just built wider pavements. It’s a pretty nice town and the pavements are very narrow in places, with cars given too much of a priority. Wider pavements, or even full pedestrianisation, has been talked about for some time, so why not just do it now?

In a few weeks the three months of temporary pavement will end, and, with fears of a resurgence of COVID-19, those temporary barriers will stay up, probably throughout winter. There’s never been a better opportunity to get cracking on making the place look better and giving pedestrians more space. With the added bonus it’ll enable social distancing, which the barriers don’t do. They take up too much space themselves, and there’s a dangerous step down onto the road which is a hazard for the older folks and the disabled.

The king of short-term thinking, though, is Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor. Furloughing workers was an obvious step and, just as obviously, it presents the problem of what happens when the furlough period ends. Do you keep paying people not to go to work, or do they go to work and risk an increase in infections? Or, as seems to be the latest rumoured plan, young people go to work and anyone over fifty stays at home. I have no answer to that conundrum.

Sunak’s short-termism is his focus on getting the hospitality industry back to work when, in all likelihood, it’ll come crashing to a halt. It happened to tourism operators. One moment the government was telling everyone they could go to sunny Spain then, with just a few hours notice, they applied a quarantine to returning travellers, and airlines stopped flying again.

Now, whilst telling everyone to wear masks and socially distance, Sunak is offering half price meals at restaurants, but only if you eat-in, where the risk of infection is so much greater. It’s particularly risky if you get served by Sunak himself, who promoted the scheme carrying out meals without wearing a facemask.

Data from Open Table shows that restaurant bookings are now only 13% down on a year ago. Compare that to the States, where there’s no BOGOF from Sunak, where bookings are still over 50% down, and two thirds lower in Florida and California. People don’t want to catch the virus. The simple message, as COVID cases rise, people don’t eat out as much. Just like the airlines flying to Spain, restaurants will be closing up shop and the 10 quid discount will just be a flash in the frying pan.

Yet this could have been a great opportunity for the country. Boris Johnson has been telling us he wants to stop obesity, so less people look like him. Once he’s got that sorted, perhaps he’ll start on haircuts. But being fat comes from poor diet and lack of exercise. I think we can safely the science is in on that. Sadly, most people don’t know how to cook healthy food. Presumably though, all these buy one get one free, open today, closed tomorrow, restaurants do. Couldn’t they be feeding the nation, but in the safety of their own homes? Couldn’t the subsidy be on the delivery of healthy food, not a part time discount for eat-in at McDonalds?

If we encouraged restaurants to cook healthy nosh and the government picked up the delivery tab, we’d keep chefs working, employ more delivery drivers and give the broad (very broad) population a taste of good food. The government could even produce a pamphlet on healthy eating for us to browse through as we chow down. It could be a plan to see us through winter.

That’s longer-term thinking, accepting that everything we do now should be for permanent change. Anything to get us through a few months ignores the likelihood that life will be like this for the next few years. We should be looking at the opportunity to do things differently, not quick fixes that leave us no further ahead, just further in debt.

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