295 - Long-Term Distancing


So at last we're beginning to recognise that the Covid-19 consequences will run for a long time. The question that the politicians are avoiding is what they think they might de-restrict in what order. The assumption appears to be that (i) the public is extremely stupid (ii) allied with stupidity, the public is immensely selfish and displays a herd mentality, such that any perceived imminent lifting of a restriction will cause many (hundreds of thousands) to leap to be at the front of the herd. Thus the political thinking would be (is evidenced, perhaps) that discussing in a sensible way what might occur is NOT going to happen because so many would be expected to take possibility as actuality. The press does not help; the daily briefings from Downing Street start contain an awful lot of repetition; the political content is almost invariable, the science as explained is more helpful.

The repeated question is the when of lifting of restrictions. When cannot happen until the transmission rate is confirmed as well below unity, with deaths (well behind cases) well down. We need to have the level of incidence down low enough to be able to do test and trace — to track who has it, has had it, is susceptible yet to catching it. That requires the level of disease within the population to be suitably low. So a better question accepts that some of the restrictions might lift a little and then the question becomes about how those might be categorised. The decision is political because the balancing act as to who and what is at risk is not a medical one. I'm sure we'll be given a target number for new cases soon enough, perhaps below 1000 new cases five days in a row.

So what might be released from quite such restriction? A set of suggestions at [1]  points to various categories: office work, schools, shops big/small, car dealerships, bookshops, parks, DIY stores, construction sites, garden centres. We could look at different categorisation too, such as very limited personal travel (say under 15 minutes), continuing to have as many as possible working from home, continuing to have distancing while also at work or school, all wearing masks, changing dramatically how we view someone being possibly infectious or ill. So instead of looking at what businesses might reopen, we could look instead at the activities we might change, such as ideas about travel, about social distance, about interactions with others. I'll attempt the business categories first.

School: yes, many parents want the little dears to be out of the house. But if distancing is to be preserved, that means classes have to reduce dramatically. Kids are very bad at following instruction they do not understand, so I consider that senior school might return in exam years (which would mean Y10 and Y12, the future cohorts of Y11 and Y13), but that might also mean alternate days at school, though I am unsure that even halving the density would be sufficient. Very high on my list of worries is what to do about the idiot who thinks it is funny to threaten others with contamination; I'd want to send them home immediately with no imminent return. The issue then would be whether education is improved by physical attendance— or whether that is why we 'do' school at all. Parents will have an entirely different set of criteria for return to school. I do not see how primary school can function, though I can see an argument for attempting to teach Y6, headed for  'big school', Y7, in September. It strikes me that there is an argument that says the kids are least at risk and reopening school has a big effect on families. That ignores the risk to teachers; it ignores that parents do a lot of worrying about risk as it applies to their children; it ignores the behaviour of children, which contains an awful lot of close  physical contact eminently suitable for spreading any infection. I don't see this happening at all soon and I think a return to school in September is what will be contemplated. We could yet lose a whole year and we could end up with rare days physically at school. This is not much different from what I thought in early March.

Construction: I do not see how this restarts without the material supply trade. My personal observation has been that all guys in hi-vis jackets seem to have a very poor idea of what two metres might be—an idea that bothers me more still in a business where measurement is crucial. If the supply trade is allowed to recommence, does that include DIY and if not, how does anyone distinguish between say me and any of the small tradesmen I might employ? Trade accounts only? I agree that construction is a big business nationally so we want it working and especially since it is to an extent weather-dependent, but I wonder what has to change to make it sufficiently safe.

Offices: If we recognise that many offices have discovered the extent to which work can be done from home, then a return to office while doubling or trebling the distance between workers is feasible. Difficult, but feasible. From an economic point of view any such employer is going to want to think about having very much fewer desks in use (fewer desks, desks at very large distances), to rethink how movement around the office is done and that might lead them to staff in effect sharing desks across a team, perhaps attending the office only once a week. What bothers me is the attitudes to management, to measures of success, to motivation and targets. What this calls for is a rethink that causes work to be very much more collaborative (which seems the opposite to working apart) and much more self-motivated. How a manager justifies its own work then becomes an interesting problem. We require businesses of all sorts to learn (very quickly) how to return to productivity; I think we need to see a lot of trust being given to staff, which will have a knock-on effect in terms of what is seen as productive work. I'm afraid I see many jobs largely disappearing.

Shops: These too are severely hampered by attendance / proximity restrictions. Those shops where one needs to browse (clothes? DIY?) have problems with people handling the goods and I think we will see a dramatic shift to delivery, with consequences for the returned goods side. That means that the physical shop has serious problems in its future, where there will be argument to keep access to food supply. How we organise take-out remains a mystery; how we make safe anywhere that staff meet many folk in a day—and do that in a way that is safe for the staff—remains difficult and I think spells its own demise. So I'm afraid that the high street is even more doomed than it was a year ago. In turn that means that the online business is where we all turn and that strongly suggests we need regulation (as if we didn't already need it!!) and a very strong delivery system.

If this is correct then the classes of sales that continue are those where physical presence is required, perhaps because the item needs to be experienced. For many, clothes fit that description and the 30-50% return rate seen in the mail order business adds a lot to the cost of such business (and at the same time, causes one to raise the incidence of making returns, since this is somehow included in the price). Another such case would be vehicle sales and how one does a test drive while preserving distance is not understood by me; I suppose the whole idea needs to be revisited. Another such case is property; the exchange of housing has virtually stopped and, if we are looking at extended restriction, will require some inventive thinking to kick-start it. One of the issues I have raised several times here is to do with proof of identity, perhaps something as fundamental as trust or proof of trustworthiness; I see that as requiring new classes of certification, a rethinking of let-out clauses, of no-fault change-of-mind situations. I have particularly been struck by a need for self-certification on the internet — something amounting to a signature but indicating something more akin to proof of substance.

Let's look at the whole of these issues from a different perspective. The assumption here is that we do not have an effective reliable vaccine. Once we do, then the moment 90% or so is vaccinated, we can all return to some version of 'normal', until the next time.

Social distancing. Let us suppose that the two metre rule is with us for a year or more. That means that all forms of congregation are difficult, perhaps so difficult they cannot happen. Sport (attending and doing) off; music and drama (attending and doing) off; nothing wrong with recording for later viewing, or with transmission, but that presupposes that the activity is safe for the participants. I don't see how football (challenge: list sports that might be safe) is made safe for the players, how most forms of music and drama are made safe for the players.  Desk-based work needs to move to home; desks in offices demand far lower densities with consequences for office costs. At the same time, residences are going to be seen as too small and if this continues or recurs, then we're going to want more varied space in our homes (because the office has moved under the roof). This has a dramatic effect on commercial property, attitudes to rent and the ability to live off rent. 

Travel.  We could very easily be looking at a long time before travel for pleasure and leisure is permitted or encouraged. So the collapse of the travel and hospitality businesses is likely and we need to see some repurposing (which I wrote about in March already). I suggest that the change is towards the goods travelling, not the people. For hotels, the future would lie in offering isolation spaces; I've written all of this already. However, if we are looking at some need to justify every trip and if that were to continue into the foreseeable future, we have a conflict between wanting to not-have a car and not-at-all trusting public transport. In effect what will happen is that isolated travel (by car) becomes the requirement, but that it is done relatively rarely, which makes the car very much more expensive to justify. So we want self-drive cars, delivered hire cars, possibly taxi services — but transit systems are going to be seen as unsafe. See [2]. So we are likely to have a dramatic move towards self-powered travel (walking, bicycles, other) and a need for our towns and cities to make this possible. It is quite likely that car speeds are reduced in consequence. Imagine all 30mph limits becoming 20mph, reflecting the increase in well-spaced pedestrians and cycles; I noticed yesterday that any car passing me (on my bike) in a 20mph zone has to be exceeding the limit, since I probably am doing so—I cycle at more than twice the speed I run and 10 miles in an hour used to be occasionally achieved.

Social interaction. If we're all wearing masks when outdoors then physical interaction will drop off quickly. I don't know about you but I need to see a mouth working to understand what has been said (I'm not deaf yet, either) and especially to pick up on the parallel messages such as irony and expression. Which moves all such conversation to two cases; a video call and a well-separated distance—both of which we've all been doing for six weeks, haven't we? I think this might cause some of us to consciously go seek opportunity for such interaction as a mental health need. What I miss already is the variety of people met in a week, even if only briefly. 


Health. Both physical and mental, which I often see as separate challenges. The permitted solo exercise session is very valuable to me but then I have a long-term habit. I'm out running or cycling for an hour a day; the hour on foot is usually 45 mins running and the remainder lost in road crossings and finding excuses to walk, while the cycling is usually a bit longer, perhaps because I find that difficult to raise to an aerobic threshold. I'm sure the outdoor exercise does good things for mental health, but I do a lot of other mental exercise (jigsaws, sudoku, crosswords); what I miss is intelligent conversation and stimulation.

This page reflects that last; I am dissatisfied that very little here is at all new.

DJS 20200424

top pic from bloomberg.com

An extended answer from the excellent Chris Whitty, pictured above lest we forget soon enough who he is, explained the political problem. It is inherently amusing that the politicians explain why a question belongs with the medics and the medics explain why a question is for politicians. Aside from that, he explained that there are many ways in which restrictions can be lifted a little bit; each of those would have (will have) an effect upon the R₀ value that we currently think is between 0.5 and 1.0 (and more precisely, close to 0.75). Quite which mix of the possibilities is chosen is a political decision. Quite which mixes are possible depends on how far below unit the  R₀ value is. That is, obviously, because each de-restriction raises the R-value and we cannot afford for that to exceed unity (and we don't want it especially close to allow for some wriggle room). I think there is a subtext, underlining how very stupid enough of the population is to undo whatever is in place, that says whatever is lifted as a restriction, enough people will take any lift as license for whatever action they want—and that will very likely take us back into lockdown. What I'd like to see is that explained in detail. The evidence shared suggests the 'stupid' proportion is as big as 3%, when it would be too big at a tenth of that.

A tv prog I caught (no idea) voiced what I thought some time ago about choices: (i) isolate only the identified high-risk people, allow the disease to run its course in everyone else, run the risk of swamping the health services, and get the economy back and running quickly (ii) isolate as many as possible so as to reduce total deaths and total cases, with the result that the whole takes longer in exchange for (far) fewer deaths.  Which you could sum up as (i) the economy is what is important and (ii) health (meaning losses from death) is more important.  The trouble with these two scenarios is that those touched by death or its nearness know for certain that route (ii) is right (or that despite it, there is failure), while those entirely unaffected are about as certain that death and illness is someone else's problem, so they want route (i).  What we are far from understanding is how the state of the economy affects national health and the reverse, how national health affects the economy. Whether any nations are able to learn about this balancing act, I doubt. All I think we will see is that those who acted fastest and most definitely are the same nations that have outcomes labelled 'good'.

DJS 20200428

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52183295

[2] https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2020/04/coronavirus-reopen-cities-public-transit-car-free-bike-milan/610360/

Challenge: sports separated by a barrier, such as perhaps motor sport (how is that safe for the mechanics?), tennis, golf, swimming. Sports such as cycling and running might be okay in the time trial mode (separated starts as in orienteering), sculling but not other rowing, single canoeing, some equestrian events but probably not horse racing. Everything where the money is?

Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018