It’s week 1 of the great return to work. So how was the ‘new normal’ for you? | World news


The black cab driver

Steve McNamara doesn’t want to go on but he is adamant that traffic in London is killing his trade just as much as Covid is. For most of the pandemic, McNamara was “locked up at home like everyone else” but business has been picking up lately. “Steadily, we are getting people back in London this week and they’re moving around. But the street space thing [where roads have been narrowed to allow cyclists and pedestrians to use more space] has been diabolical.”

By McNamara’s telling, journeys are taking “twice as long” even though there are fewer cars on the roads, making his work a furious chug of car horns and congestion.

McNamara, 50, drives in to the West End from south-east London and has been a cabbie “since God was a boy”. He has weathered plenty of hits to the trade and invested in an electric cab a couple of years ago. “The funny thing is, black cabs were enjoying a renaissance before the pandemic. People didn’t think Uber was so sexy any more. Now, the situation is so dire.”

Steve McNamara. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Observer

He declines to discuss his average takings but says: “Let’s put it this way, you’ve got some cabbies living in big houses with a nice car for the wife who doesn’t work, and you’ve got some living in a council flat who can’t pay the rent.”

He doesn’t think much of workers who are opting to stay away from the office, despite admitting he has never worked in one. “They’ve got to get public confidence back. If you can work from home or anywhere, how do you know you won’t be first in line to be replaced by someone for half the price in Sri Lanka?”

It’s one take, and irrespective of wider public health worries, for his part McNamara feels safe. “I sit at the front behind a partitioned wall, talking to the customers on an intercom,” he says. “You couldn’t have designed a vehicle better to protect you from a pandemic, could you?”

The fitness studio owner

Kickstarting people back into shape and motivating them to adopt better and healthier habits is Joan Murphy’s bread and butter. After months of lockdown lethargy, September promised a rise in business – three of the seven central London studios she co-owns have reopened in the last few weeks – and classes have been redesigned with strict Covid-secure measures: temperature checks, socially distanced markings, everything wiped down before and after class “before a Ghostbusters-style cleaning team zap everything a couple of times a week”.

Has she noticed a marked increase in bookings this week? “Not significantly, but our members are loyal so I’m staying optimistic.” Frame, which sits between a gym and fitness class studio, opened its newest branch two months before lockdown. The business took 65,000 class bookings in February.

Joan Murphy.

“It’s a fraction of that now. The economics are horrific. We have seven landlords with varying degrees of understanding, 130 employees and about 250 freelancers. People obviously aren’t dropping in before or after work. The footfall isn’t there. Classes run at around 40% capacity of what they would pre-pandemic.”

The business made an early pivot to offer classes online which is “going great guns – we have over 10,000 people signed up online”, but as Murphy says: “It’s still pretty bleak. I know five other studio businesses that say they aren’t reopening. This week, I was told only 2% of office staff are back in Fitzrovia. That’s a scary statistic for businesses – but you have to expect that people’s behaviour will change after this. It’s mind-boggling not to accept that and adapt to it.”

The headteacher

Emily Proffitt.

Emily Proffitt is thrilled to be back at Cooper Perry primary school in Seighford, Staffordshire, with a full house of 230 children – albeit still adjusting to the new rules. No live assemblies, staggered break times, no staff contact. “That’s taken the social aspect out of everyone’s job – there is no staff room so to speak,” she says. “But the really difficult thing for me is having to sit on my hands in my office and not walk the corridors or meet the new children starting in early years, otherwise I would be breaking the bubbles. So that’s hard but it is just such a relief to have everyone back safely.”

Lots of parents in Seighford had been anxious about sending their children back this month but, says Proffitt, “the children have overwhelmingly been excited.” Cooper Perry has very few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – just 12 are on free school meals – although Proffitt expects that number to rise in the coming months once the furlough scheme ends.

“This week, we expected some attachment issues and trauma and there were a few tears at the gates, but I think there will be more challenges down the line. We’re still assessing the gaps in learning and we’ll know more in the coming weeks. The main difference we’re seeing is the level of independence: children who have been at home for such a long period of time, one to one, they’re getting a lot less adult attention back in the class. So we’re having to encourage more independence.”

Logistics aside, trying to “funnel children, social distance in and out of school at the right times, get one-way systems back in place”, Proffitt is surprised at how smoothly things have run so far. “I’ve never ever been so nervous in my career than I was at the start of this week, but we’ve done it. We can’t become complacent – we’re still living in a pandemic – but this is the best thing for children long term because their wellbeing has already suffered. The impact can be there for decades to come, and we need to make sure they’re socially and emotionally prepared.”

The drycleaner

Ramadan Bassim has been running A Fresh Start cleaners in Canary Wharf in London for 17 years. His customers spend an average of £75 a week getting their business suits cleaned, shirts pressed and underwear laundered. “We have hundreds of regulars, high-flying exec guys, where we do anywhere between 500 and 800 pieces a week for them. Now they’re all working from home in their pants and T-shirts. I have about 5% of that business left.”

Bassim is adamant that the government should force workers back into offices to protect ancillary businesses like his. “It has to be safe, we all keep to masks and hand sanitisers and so on but the French banks have done it, and they’re trying to do the same here with their employees but nobody seems to want to come back. Cities will die.”

Has demand for his work not increased in the past week? “I wouldn’t be talking to you if it had. It’s a ghost town. The buildings are locked down. There’s nobody on the streets, most shops and restaurants are closed.”

Three drycleaners in the neighbourhood have remained shut and opening hours at A Fresh Start have been reduced. “Canary Wharf normally has 100,000 people coming to work here every day. It’s now around 2,000 and it affects everybody. The support staff, the retail staff – you look at what’s being done in Germany and France and you just think, this government has no clue.”

The parent

Tim Vincent-Smith.

After five full-on months looking after his two sons, Tim Vincent-Smith was expecting a semblance of relief once schools reopened. Being at home in Edinburgh with Oliver, seven, and Theo, four, while his wife Meghan worked long shifts on the front line as a doctor, he parked his work as an artist and musician for caring, cleaning and cooking.

“The transition has been a real strain,” he says. “There has been some turbulence – we worked very hard to make sure that the kids are OK but I think the price of that is that I don’t think we worked hard enough to make sure that we, as parents, are OK.”

Children in Scotland went back to school in August, so Vincent-Smith has had “a head start” on the new normal, adjusting to staggered school runs, adding masks, wipes and hand sanitiser to backpacks, and working out how the family can reacclimatise.

“Thankfully, the Scottish government seems to understand that people want to be at work and don’t need to be encouraged to do such a thing.

“In England it seems like schools are a thinly veiled reason to get people back to work, back to business as usual, even though lockdown has presented all these new opportunities and ways to reset.

“Having the kids back in school is a very large step towards normality, but I think we’ve all been changed by the events of the last five months. I don’t think we can ever go back to what the old normal was. The trick is to find ways in which that can be better.”

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