Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 
Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 

It is hard to believe it has been 3 months since the lockdown started but it now seems as though people are beginning to resume normal life. Although the term normal is perhaps stretching a point.

Looking back on those 3 months it’s also hard to over exaggerate what a debt we owe to all the key workers who have helped to keep us safe. Who knew or appreciated before the pandemic hit us that delivery drivers, shelf stackers and cleaners amongst many other so called low skill, low paid occupations are key workers just as much as NHS front line staff and care workers are?

Given how interconnected our society is perhaps we are more surprised than we should be. Coming out of lockdown, I do hope people don’t forget the debt we owe all those people who put themselves at risk to support us all. And that raises some local concerns.

There is little doubt that people are glad to see that ‘non-essential’ shops are beginning to open although looking at Bicester in particular, a few things worry me. First, the relaxation of distance rules is all very well but from experience in supermarkets over the last 12 weeks, a 2 metre distance rule was hard to police and enforce and they have the space. Looking at shops on Sheep Street, how many have the space to enforce a 1 metre social distance, let alone 2? We all know that footfall is the key to ensuring local shops survival and if they can’t get it, and it was hard enough before the pandemic, how many will survive the aftermath?

The second concern is equally worrying. Just thinking back to the scenes at Bicester Village last weekend, social distancing didn’t appear to be something that shoppers there thought worth observing. Marvellous what effect the desire for a pair of Gucci shoes or a Prada handbag has on good sense in the middle (still) of the worst world pandemic since 1918. Transfer that feeling that it’s all over and social distancing is increasingly optional, could local shops survival depend on risking a local outbreak of coronavirus as social distancing breaks down?

It seems to me that while the desire to ‘get the economy moving again’ is desirable and understandable, no more so than in places like Bicester, how many local jobs are going to survive? Bicester is essentially a service economy with many people commuting into London, Oxford or Birmingham. And with public transport hit harder than any sector by the new social distancing rules – which still apply to them –  and buses and trains running at 30% capacity at best are we going to see a big increase in private car traffic? All the gains, and there are a few, relating to improved air quality and lower pollution levels over the last 3 months could disappear very quickly.

What this indicates is what we should have learned since March and what I said at the beginning of this article. Our society is highly interconnected. Tackling one problem – the economy (or even specific parts of it like hospitality) – has impacts on other parts of the community we all rely on. Playing whack a mole with these issues risks a second peak in the coronavirus. We are all desperate for things to return to normal – whatever that looks like now –  but remember what the experts told us this week. The virus is here now and could certainly remain with us until this time next year if not beyond.

Take care everyone and continue to stay safe!

Bicester Advertiser column from Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP

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