Lockdown also caused an upending of traditional social hierarchies. Celebrities have never appeared more vacuous or irrelevant. Kate Winslet undoubtedly meant well but attracted widespread derision when she gave advice after pointing out she played an epidemiologist in the film Contagion. It was real scientists, including that gentle, lofty brainbox, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who were our stars now as well as the remarkable, chart-topping figure of Colonel Tom Moore. A youth-obsessed society rediscovered old people; not just as sad casualties of corona but as individuals of spirit and resourcefulness who could bring almost a century of perspective to our present problems.
In the years before corona, PPE meant philosophy, politics and economics, the subject that the elite read at Oxford before going on to run the country. Now, PPE means something entirely different. It’s the safety attire of the people we soon came to see as the most important members of our society. It wasn’t the political or professional elite who were on the frontline doing 13-hour shifts in masks that cut savagely into their faces. It was nurses, care assistants and paramedics who are poorly rewarded for work of inestimable value. Cicero, one of the Prime Minister’s favourite philosophers, observed: ‘In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to men.’ Never have we felt the truth of that so profoundly as during the Covid pandemic when exhausted medics joined the immortals and, every Thursday night, all the streets in all the land were filled with a great thunder of clapping for our shattered heroes.
When this is over will we return to worshipping at the tawdry altar of Fame or will the appreciation of human beings of genuine merit survive reentry to Planet Normal? It feels, at least for now, as if the specific gravity of the carers and the healers will continue to carry great weight. Public gratitude will reshape politics for a generation. Boris Johnson himself survived an attack by the ‘invisible mugger’, and paid tribute to the two nurses, Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma, who monitored his vital signs for three anxious days and nights. Bursaries for nurses’ training were scrapped by Theresa May’s government, an act of wanton vandalism. Looking forward, you can be sure that a Johnson administration will reward the NHS that saved his life (while reforming its hopeless procurement arm) and deliver the 50,000 extra nurses we so desperately need. Yes, Covid-19 put the NHS under horrendous pressure, but the virulent new disease also forced medics to adapt and learn at great speed. ‘Best practice is rolled out in a matter of days when normally it would take months or years,’ one consultant marvelled. Amazing what can be achieved when there’s no time for paperwork, protocols or layers of useless management.
It wasn’t just doctors who were learning on the job. Companies that stayed open had to rapidly develop new ways of operating. Staff meetings were held on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. For years, people like me who campaigned for better work-life balance were told that the old command-and-control model of major corporations would never accept mums and dads working from home in any numbers. The culture of ‘presenteeism’ was stubbornly immovable. Well, Covid-19 smashed through the roadblock. During lockdown, WFH (working from home) instantly became the norm, with husbands and wives divvying up the chores. Gender equality acquired rocket boosters. No longer would men be able to claim that the world would end if they had to do their share of their childcare. Acknowledging the huge cultural shift, Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, said that having thousands of workers in one building ‘may be a thing of the past’. Instead of 7,000 employees travelling to the bank’s Canary Wharf headquarters, just a handful went to the office while the rest worked from home. Another CEO told me that her staff, who hadn’t had to pay for travel or lunch for weeks, ‘feel like they’ve had a pay rise and don’t want to go back to how things were’. An exodus of jobs and people from London looks likely in the next year.