Britain was on Thursday kept on lockdown for another three weeks, extending a surreal phase in the nation’s history marked by economic and social distress but also accompanied by a new-found sense of society and a marked improvement in the country’s baking skills.
Although the lockdown might start to be eased next month, its legacy could endure, whether in terms of unemployment, the nation’s mental condition, or Britons’ approach to homeworking and the rediscovery of the simpler things in life.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics published on Thursday found just over half of adults said the crisis was affecting their wellbeing, with 46.9 per cent reporting high levels of anxiety and just over one-fifth saying it was hitting their household finances.
But a study by the RSA think-tank found only 9 per cent of people wanted a total return to “normal” after the lockdown; 51 per cent had noticed cleaner air and 40 per cent felt a stronger sense of local community during the crisis.
A YouGov survey for the RSA also found 42 per cent of people valued food more and 38 per cent were cooking more from scratch — a phenomenon familiar to shoppers searching for flour.
Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation think-tank, said a person’s experience of the lockdown was often linked to their wealth; “lots but not all” higher earners were able to work from home on full pay or survive on 80 per cent if they had been furloughed.
“Their income has been protected and there have been big falls in their expenditure,” he said. “Their financial situation is no worse than before and in some cases better.”
Top earners were five times more likely to be able to work from home than the lowest earners, many of whom had lost their jobs, Mr Bell said. Those who remained in work were often at the sharp end of dealing with coronavirus.
Mr Bell predicted enforced homeworking could “turbo-charge” an existing trend and some people might choose to work two days a week from home, instead of one. But he added: “People are overstating things when they say this is the end of the office.”
He said companies would continue to reap the benefits of the “agglomeration effects” of having staff exchanging ideas and working together, while humans remained “social animals” who were starting to chafe against working from their spare room.
A sign of Britain’s revived social bonds has come in the form of mutual aid groups, tens of thousands of which were set up after the lockdown was announced with the aim of running errands and offering community support to people in isolation or struggling.
Ben Hadley, 35, who joined his local group in south Hackney, said: “I’ve met more people in the past few weeks than I’ve done at any time living in London,” he said. “I really hope we’re able to get together in person when the restrictions lift.”
Alex Waugh, director-general of the National Association of British and Irish Millers, said home baking usually accounted for 4 per cent of UK flour sales and the sector has doubled its output for home use in the last month.
“There’s been this kind of primordial turn to baking at home,” he said. Internet searches for recipes, as well as videos and, tellingly, tips for when things go wrong, have peaked, he said.
Meanwhile, such is the shortage of hair clippers, as locked-down Brits turn their homes into makeshift salons, that even professional barbers cannot get hold of them.
Rachel Hobson, who owns Hone & Strop in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, and broke a set just before the lockdown, forecast that people would return to hairdressers. “The older ones whose wives are using the clippers may not be back. But I think we’ll be busier than ever with the younger ones. There are going to be some dreadful haircuts out there.”
Many are using the extra time in lockdown to learn a language rather than watch Netflix. Duolingo, one of the world’s biggest tuition apps, said it recorded a threefold increase in new learners in the first week of the lockdown compared to the same week the previous month.
That is triple the jump in France and Spain after their lockdowns. In March more than 30 per cent of new learners were using it to replace school but the second most popular reason was “brain training”.
Travel patterns have also inevitably shifted, as people have embraced cycling and walking as part of their daily exercise routine. Brompton, which manufactures fold-up bicycles, has just had its best week of sales in China after two months where it did not sell a single unit.
“That’s pretty interesting and it demonstrates that people are not going back to the old normal,” Will Butler-Adams, the company’s managing director, said. “I think what follows this is going to be interesting, and I just hope that our government has the political confidence to believe that you can’t just go back to normal.”
One early political test of the “lockdown effect” will be whether Boris Johnson’s government realigns its priorities in favour of those at the bottom of the income scale, particularly those who have borne the brunt of the impact of the virus in the last few weeks.
Mr Johnson summed up his own gratitude after leaving St Thomas’ hospital following his treatment for coronavirus: “I’ve seen the personal courage not just of doctors, nurses but everyone: the cleaners, cooks, healthcare workers of every description,” he said. “They kept coming to work, kept putting themselves in harm’s way.”
Mr Bell hoped that politicians would start to repay that debt by crafting policies — notably on pay and employment conditions — that give “dignity and respect” to those workers. “That may be a more important legacy than the country acquiring significantly better baking skills,” he said.