2020: The world invents time travel

The rise and fall of the pandemic, the creation of a new paradigm and how society jumped forward 15 years in just a few months.

Looking back to February and early March, no one really saw how the future of “the outbreak in Wuhan” would unfold. What transpired was the greatest threat to public health and economic wealth in a hundred years. It also marked the greatest societal change in the history of man.

In less than a year, the pandemic has single-handedly changed almost every aspect of our lives. The hangover will be long and painful for some, but it will liberate society to move on from our unsustainable 20th century lifestyle. The gains will be immense and long-lasting.

The widely discussed great reset has already occurred. The pandemic changed how and where we work, socialise and spend our free time. It reinforced the need for excellent public health, accelerated change in shopping habits, re-framed our view of debt, changed learning & education, sparked the return of communities & “local”, triggered widespread telemedicine, and re-framed travel; cars, bikes, walking and public transport. These changes are mostly permanent … we will not go back to how it was before. This is good, for most of us.

Changes that might have taken a generation to happen were kick-started in weeks and will be largely done and dusted in a little over a year. It is costly, in the UK,upwards of 100,000 will die and a further 250,000 could have longer-term health complications, physical and mental. In a population of 68 million, thats about one half of one percent dead or injured (compared to the 250,000 death toll in the 1918-20 Flu pandemic).

Aristotle once said “we don’t experience time, but change”, so what we witnessed in 2020 is this quasi-generational jump to 2035 – and that pace of change suits us all quite differently. The opportunity for the surviving 99.5% of the population is to adapt, grow and create a better society. Not all will make the transition, some will get left behind, unable to deal with the enormity of our new world. That could number as many as 5 million in the UK alone, worldwide it will run past half a billion. Great empires are still yet to fall, propped-up by borrowing and emergency-fever, there is very little time left to pivot.

How did we jump forward 15 years in time?

With years seemingly compressed into weeks, the pandemic went from something over there in early March to a world-wide shutdown four weeks later. In the UK, cases and deaths climbed out of control for a month until mid April when they fell as steeply as they had risen. Over the next three months the scary numbers just melted away until mid-July when everything went quiet over our glorious summer, few cases and fewer deaths. Whew, that was close.

That might have been it, the fear of the new virus still ringing in our ears. It also felt that our corner of the world might get back to normal – sitting outside a pub on a glorious summers day with table service, “eat out to help out” all seemed to be post-war activities. A time for recovery and reflection.

Other countries had there own challenges and solutions – we were all living in a real-world experiment supported by unlimited new sovereign debt. But we were going to be ok, the first peak had passed without too much drama here.

All this brave new world stuff could be wound back, we’d all go back to what we were doing before, surely. Except that did not happen, folks liked working from home, buying online, and being frugal. We still couldn’t fly anywhere so instead we invaded the British seaside, to discover the toilets were locked and some places had roadblocks. Maybe we weren’t quite back to normal.

The lockdown hadn’t just restricted us, it had changed us for good and mostly for the better. We largely liked the new normal, and we liked it even better when we could share it down the pub with our mates we were not supposed to be mixing with. We were the survivors and we had made it through to see the light of dawn. That British grit was alive and well.

Then *bang* in early September, and as if all our nightmares came back to haunt us, the second wave hit and numbers started climbing again. They would continue inexorably to rise until mid-November when the winter drop reversed the autumn rise. To date, the rises and falls have mirrored the seasons, the weather, school attendance, lockdowns, availability of a pint in your local, and phases of the bloody moon. No-one knew what was going to happen next.

People started wearing masks, eventually. Tiers became a thing, confusing for all including the government. Battle lines were drawn as we started to get tired of sacrificing our livelihoods and social freedoms. We haplessly broke the rules when it suited us and shamed others that did the same.

Then, against the odds in late November, a working vaccine got approval, and another, and another. Billions of doses would be available within months. Yay, lets all go down the pub, but only if you were in Tier 7F, on a Tuesday, before 10pm. Except the vaccines would not be widely available 2021, scientists predict restrictions will still be in force until the summer of next year. The light at the end of the tunnel is quite bright now.

With Christmas and its relaxed measures coming up, we expect to see another wave of infections and restrictions come the new year. The two previous peaks stayed in the “scary” category for a month, so we expect mid January to late February to be another series of grim announcements, brutal restrictions and sad stories of loss. But, two months later (the rough cycle we have seen so far) takes us to May, when wave number four might re-visit if we didn’t have a vaccine.

So, by May, we should have achieved some sort of herd immunity due to new vaccines and natural immunity. We expect to see a little bump, moderated by improved social compliance and better weather taking us outdoors (but not abroad in tightly packed planes). Whilst social and legislative measures are likely to stay in place until the vaccination programme is over, we should all have a much more normal, family-focussed summer.

If summer 2021 marks the end of the pandemic, it’s also when the new paradigm becomes stark. The accelerant effect of the pandemic means we will be waking up in 2035. We will not go back now we have tasted the future.

To quote the Simpsons, “I for one welcome our new overlords” and these overlords will be big tech-derived solutions to our new existence. Many will stay working from home, the daily grind of commuting and paying through the nose to work in big cities will be gone. Our shopping will arrive on a van, driven by a zero-hours contract worker. Education will make extensive use of remote teaching and medicine will be executed online. We have fewer and fewer reasons to leave our home, so we’ll want a bigger and nicer one, probably not in the centre of town, and with a nice garden.

The vast repayment of debt across 2020 will make us all richer and financial institutions poorer. The new frugal is here to stay, it’s liberating having a smaller mortgage, lower credit card bills, and more money to spend on Amazon. We learned to appreciate the simpler things in life, like family, exercise, our dogs, free time, and binging on Netflix.

Welcome to our 2035

Across 2020 we saw our corporate balance sheet increase by 25%, despite decreased sales. We will likely close our Leeds office due to lack of need. Most of our meetings are now on Zoom or Teams, reducing our costs dramatically and increasing our efficiency. We expect to be paying more tax in the future, but we are certainly wealthier and can afford them. We have a smaller team, as a result of increased efficiencies across the whole business. We have fewer competitors in the market, too, as the weaker players got swamped trying to adapt.

We never had much debt, but today we have none. We are not trapped in a world of high fixed-costs and stay nimble and highly profitable. We very much like this new world which, to be fair, is not unlike the one we have existed in for a decade or maybe more. We leverage technology to provide a better service for less cost and charge a premium.

It is the new model, one built on technological innovation, workforce flexibility, and a commitment to a long-term and sustainable future.

2021 sees our 25th anniversary of our founding and we start the year stronger than ever and better positioned in this brave new world. We all hope 2020 treated you as well and that 2021 holds as much opportunity and promise.