On Monday, some 13,000 families up and down the United Kingdom woke up to the reality that they would be likely losing jobs as a result of Britain’s leading chain of retail stores being placed into bankruptcy administration. Tuesday wasn’t much better.
Another 12,000 jobs will likely be lost when a 207-year-old clothing chain, which today forms the anchor tenancy in dozens of shopping centres and malls up and down the country, called in the administrators and began winding up operations. That’s 25,000 jobs gone in 48 hours, thousands of families facing a very unhappy Christmas, a decidedly unprosperous New Year.
By the time the week concludes, there may or may not be a deal of the future trading relationship between the UK and the rest of the European Union. Should there not be a Brexit deal, who knows how many more jobs will disappear.
Months of deep freeze
Yes, now is the winter of our discontent. You have to go back to the Year of the Great Frost, back in 1709, for a worst time for the British economy. Back then, three months of heavy frost destroyed a largely agrarian society, crops failed, birds fell from the skies, the Crown’s coffers were essentially bankrupted and, were it not for the monies brought in from far-flung corners of a fledgling empire, Britain would have essentially closed up shop. Now, after nine months of deep freeze as a result of the pandemic well, yes, shops have closed up — and thousands of other businesses too.
Even with £250 billion (Dh1.23 trillion) in borrowing and support for the economy, health care system and aid to businesses and individuals, the government in London is struggling to keep up with the demand brought by the economic fallout of this crisis. When the year-end unemployment figures come out, it’s expected that there will be 2.6 million without work.
What coronavirus has done is to strike not just at the weakest individuals — those with underlying illnesses of pre-existing health problems — but at the weakest sectors of the British economy, and at the areas most susceptible to its effects. Yes, the High Streets of Britain were susceptible — large fashion retailers had high-cost leases, staffing overheads and other fixed costs at a time when more Britons than ever before discovered online shopping.
If there’s one thing that the dithering over Brexit has done in recent months, it is to increase the demand for warehousing. Manufacturers don’t know if there will or won’t be a deal — heck, they’re certainly not alone in that — but they have to plan and increase their stocks of spare parts just in case there will be delays at ports for who knows how long into 2021.
Reshaping the nation
You have to go back to the dark days of the 1980s, when mines and shipyards were shut, when strikes crippled British industry, and when the Conservatives relied on Margaret Thatcher to reshape their nation for 2.6 million to be out of work.
And since then, Britain hasn’t been the same. Sure, London thrived. But in communities up and down the UK, in ports where ships were built, in towns where steel was forged, and in collier communities where coal was dug from dark, dank pits, the economic upheavals of a generation ago were only being overcome.
And when you add a decade of economic austerity into the mix, the towns and cities of northern England have had it tough. Scotland and Wales too. Around London and the Home Counties? Not so much.
Right now, 25 million people will have moved since Tuesday night into the highest level of coronavirus lockdown regulations. Yes, the government of Boris Johnson has introduced a new set of tier regulations and lockdown rules. I’ll forgive you if you’ve lost count, but this is actually the fifth set of rules and yes, there are parks of Greater Manchester and Lancashire that have been under the strictest form of rules since March. Keeping apart? They’ve gone on so long that you could actually become pregnant and deliver a full-term baby all while living under the strictest rules.
Patience is wearing thin
Is it any wonder that patience is wearing thin? On Tuesday night, the opposition Labour party abstained in the House of Commons as Members of Parliament voted on these latest tiers. Johnson will have counted each of 55 of his own party MPs who voted against the rules. Last month, introducing the second national lockdown, there were 44 Conservative rebels. And 34 six weeks before that when a previous set of tiers were introduced. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see there’s a distinct trend here — more Tories more disgruntled at the way their government is handling things.
Had Labour not decided to abstain, the vote for these new tiers would have been very close indeed. In truth, there is little alternative but to implement these measures to contain the virus until the vaccines become readily available. Come early January, when the tiers are to be revisited, should there not be changes then Johnson faces an ever bigger rebellion.
For many, the issue is that the tiers encompass full counties instead of smaller council or borough districts. Take Lancashire. In areas like Bolton or Burnley, the rate of transmission remains stubbornly high. In Lancaster, the rate is far lower — yet all cities and communities are placed in the same top category.
For five days over Christmas, all of the rules on lockdowns are to be dropped, allowing people to mix and mingle. Epidemiologists and public health officials warn that’s a perfect time too to undo all of the progress made in lowering infection rates.
Is it any wonder now this is a winter of discontent?
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe