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COVID-19: It’ll take NI years to recover post-virus (May 15)

Post-virus everything is going to change. That’s the dominant view of national and international media. But how exactly do they see the future? This regular digest section gives some of their answers and views/Edited by George Hamilton

In this edition (May 15):

  • Globe-trotting bankers face having their wings clipped
    Zoom could mean end of long lunches and less commuting in London’s financial districts
  • After Covid-19, how we can prepare for a new pandemic?
    Better monitoring and more investment in drugs could prevent another global disaster
  • Coronavirus: Northern Ireland economic recovery to take years
  • Historically, in NI, economic downturns turn into very long lasting recessions
  • Brexit killing off music tours in EU. Music industry may not survive
  • Most musicians say bookings dried up because of visa red tape and cost – even before coronavirus struck
  • Your daily commute won’t ever be the same
  • Coronavirus will upend the ways we use trains, buses, and bike lanes
  • Robots to patrol European resorts
  • Drones and robots to ensure social distancing and check our temperatures

Globe-trotting bankers face having their wings clipped

A day after MPs grilled Barclays over the Libor-rigging scandal in the summer of 2012, more than 1,000 bankers headed to a restaurant in London’s Shoreditch to drink lashings of Louis Roederer champagne and party until 6am.

A press release promoting the party boasted that “despite the dismal financial outlook” – it had been barely four years since the 2008 financial crash – the financiers had been treated to an “all-girl dance troupe, fire-breathing strippers, snake dancers and sword swallowers” while “massage girls offered their service to tired bankers”.

This culture of excess – five City dealers once celebrated a deal by spending £44,000 on a liquid lunch – is now largely hidden from view. Wine binges are no longer viewed as part of the job and expense accounts have shrunk dramatically. But hopping between countries to hobnob with clients remains a crucial part of the job.

As one City banker puts it, travelling overseas for just one meeting was part and parcel of his work routine and a key way of bonding with clients. A meeting turns into a drink that turns into dinner that turns into more drinks. City Airport had a record 5.2 million passengers last year, around half of whom were travelling for business, and it had been preparing for this to increase to 6.5 million passengers by 2025.

But the coronavirus crisis could eliminate this jet-setting routine for years to come. Banks have now realised they can seal the deal from the comfort of their living rooms.

“Long term, frequency of international travel will almost certainly decline and traditional company roadshows will be a thing of the past,” predicts Alex Ham, co-head of the UK’s largest corporate broker Numis. “It may actually bring down barriers to competing for overseas business as the virtual environment takes hold and we’ll be able to ‘open’ in new markets or hire in cities without the physical infrastructure.”

That does not mean Numis, which is broker to more than 210 London-listed companies including Asos and Ocado, is planning to up sticks and move staff to a cheaper location. Mr Ham said the bank is still going ahead with its move to a larger building in London next year but will “rethink the layout” to fit the new ways of working. He has already told staff that Monday to Friday office working will “simply not return”.

With fewer long lunches and no more 9-to-5 commuting, once buzzy restaurants in the Square Mile could be left empty as deals are hashed out over Zoom calls from countryside locations.

“All senior people have said they have become massively more productive not travelling everywhere,” one City banker says. “The top bankers who only see clients can now do three times the number of meetings per day. They will still do social meetings to buttress the relationship, but after this it will be less frequent.”

But even if overseas jaunts dwindle and Canary Wharf empties out, the value of a face-to-face meeting in the finance sector will not disappear.

“It is human nature to appreciate face-to-face, social interactions,” one London-based banker argues. “While certain banks may take a stand and impose social distancing for unnecessary international meetings, it will create a competitive advantage for those who are willing to travel once it is perceived as safe to do so. There could be a window within which certain banks could try and gain market share by going the extra mile.” Daily Telegraph May 13

After Covid-19, how we can prepare for a new pandemic?

The virus hunters had spent five years tracking down their quarry, a colony of horseshoe bats teeming with an ominous collection of coronavirus strains.

In a single cave in the Chinese province of Yunnan a team of researchers found inside these small mammals all the genetic building blocks of Sars, a virus closely related to Covid-19 that killed nearly 800 people in 2003 while causing economic mayhem across Asia. They warned that all the elements were in place, as they presented their findings two years ago, for a new Sars-like disease to skip again from animals to humans.

As the world reels from the worst pandemic in a century, scientists are calling for new systems that react to these kinds of warnings.

They argue that we need new tools to track the emergence of exotic new pathogens and a battery of new anti-viral drugs to treat them. A pharmaceuticals industry incentivised to develop treatments for the rich world’s non-infectious diseases — diabetes, heart disease and dementia among them — should be nudged towards new priorities. Pandemic plans focused on influenza must be rewritten, experts say, while still recognising that the world is overdue a cataclysmic flu pandemic.

Vincent Racaniello, a professor at Columbia University, New York said: “The first thing people need to understand is that every virus that you can think of that infects people — polio, measles, herpes, chickenpox — they all came from animals,” he said. He might also have added influenza, ebola and HIV/Aids.

Bats, Professor Racaniello says, are an obvious starting point. They are abundant, accounting for a fifth of all mammals. They thrive across a vast range of habitats, individuals often cover large distances and they harbour an extraordinary range of viruses. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of asking what viruses bats have and which ones are a threat to people,” he said.

The effort would have to cover other animals too. Sars and Covid-19 are thought to have leapt from bats to humans via intermediary “amplifier” species.

Mice carry the dangerous hantaviruses; dromedary camels harbour Mers, another coronavirus that kills a third of the humans it infects; HIV/Aids, which has killed 32 million people since 1981, came from chimpanzees. And as a growing human population continues to clear wild areas we will, inevitably, brush up against more novel microbes.

“Even our pets can be infected with influenza and I hear that dogs have become popular in China,” Professor Racaniello said. “Suddenly there are millions and millions of dogs. We are worried that they’re going to be the source of the next influenza pandemic.”

He argues that the main obstacle to the development of an effective coronavirus treatment has been a lack of funds. “We could have had a drug to block every coronavirus years ago,” he said. “But we got complacent after Sars. And people don’t want to spend the money — companies don’t want to invest when they don’t see a bottom line. And we’re at the mercy of that short-sightedness.”

Investment is instead skewed towards treatments for chronic diseases such as diabetes, which tend to be taken daily and for a lifetime. One story that’s often cited involves the drugmaker Gilead. After it announced a potentially revolutionary hepatitis C drug, its share price dropped: by curing patients it was destroying its market.

Research by Dr Michael Head, of the University of Southampton, suggests that coronaviruses accounted for as little as 0.1 per cent of spending on disease research between 2000 and 2020. More than 40 per cent of all coronavirus funding over the last 20 years has been awarded in the past four months.

The outbreak also exposed a shortage of UK production capacity for diagnostic test reagents, personal protective equipment, vaccines and medicines. This week the government tacitly acknowledged the problem, saying in its Covid-19 road map that it would invest “in the UK’s sovereign manufacturing capability to ensure that at the point a vaccine or drug-based treatment is developed it can be manufactured at scale as quickly as possible.”

Will the investments pay off? The contours of the post-lockdown world are unknown but scientific consensus is rock solid on one point: Covid-19 will not be the last virus to sweep the planet. Over the past 300 years, there have been ten influenza pandemics and avian flu outbreaks have bubbled away since 2003. Bigger cities, global travel, intensive animal farming, a rising human population — all will increase our vulnerability.

As the science writer David Quammen put it, “zoonosis”, the term for an animal infection transmissible to humans, is “a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the twenty-first century. The Times May 13

It could take years for Northern Ireland’s economy to recover

It could take years for Northern Ireland’s economy to get back to where it was before the pandemic, a leading economist has said.

Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at Ulster University’s Business School, said it was doubtful that Northern Ireland’s recovery from the lockdown would be rapid.

“… it would seem the NI economy has form in terms of allowing downturns to become very long -lasting recessions.

“There is a strong risk history will repeat itself, given that the virus has generated so much uncertainty and reduced business confidence very substantially.

“Unfortunately, there is precedent for not only very prolonged recession but also for the recovery phase being rather shallow,” he added. Belfast Telegraph May 14

Brexit killing off music tours in EU. Music industry may not survive

Musicians have revealed how Brexit is already killing off their tours in the EU, as they warn the industry may not survive tough new immigration rules.

No less than 71 per cent say their bookings for everything from classical orchestras to rock bands were drying up – even before coronavirus struck, closing down venues and putting concerts on hold.

Some are being told “EU nationals only”, because of vast red tape and extra expense to be imposed by new visa rules when the UK leaves the post-Brexit transition period in January.

“British nationals have already joined other ‘third country nationals’ on the lowest rung of hiring desirability. This is catastrophic for careers and livelihoods,” one told a new survey revealed by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM).

The replies are the first evidence of a predicted tit-for-tat crackdown, after Home Secretary, Priti Patel announced a vastly-complex and costly system to replace free movement of EU citizens.

Deborah Annetts, the ISM’s chief executive, said: “The UK music sector, which contributes £5.2bn to the economy each year, is at risk from the dual threats of Covid-19 and Brexit,” she said.

“Therefore, to avoid irreversible damage, we call for the government to recover some of the time lost to Covid-19 by requesting an extension to the transition period.”

The ISM surveyed more than 600 performers, composers, directors, artist managers, teachers and music technicians, from genres stretching from classical and musical theatre to pop, rock, jazz and folk.

It also found that 56 per cent expected to be offered less work because the UK has left the EU, with 92 per cent concerned about their future ability to work in EU countries.

The society has yet to receive any further detail of how the visa rules will operate in the three months since they were announced – with little over seven months until they kick in.

It warned they would be particularly disastrous for small venues, with bands from EU countries unable or unwilling to visit the UK. Independent May 12

Your daily commute won’t ever be the same

Interviews with transportation and public-health experts suggest that the pandemic offers an opportunity to reshape transit systems and revive cities, with the potential to ward off infectious disease and even some chronic illnesses.

And while lockdowns have put public transport in a state of crisis for the moment, strategic investment, creative thinking, and new technologies could eventually make people feel safe enough to ride again, says Yingling Fan, an urban planner at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. “There’s certainly a lot of challenge, but also there’s a lot of opportunity,” she says.

The pandemic might also open up possibilities for making transit systems more inviting.

“Transportation history is full of stories where something that was done temporarily turned out to be permanent, because people didn’t want to go back,” says Jarrett Walker, an international transit consultant

The whole purpose of mass transit is to move heaps of people, and this crowding increases the chances of spreading infectious diseases. In a study of dozens of people during the 2008-2009 influenza season, researchers in the United Kingdom found that those who rode buses or trams were nearly six times as likely as non-riders to seek health care for an acute respiratory illness.

The natural reaction might be to take a car instead, but that ups the risk for chronic illnesses, says Lawrence Frank, a transportation and public health expert at the University of British Columbia. In 2004, he and his colleagues found that every extra hour that people spend in a car each day increases their risk for obesity by 6 percent. Obesity, in turn, is a predictor of diabetes and heart disease—which both increase a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19 complications.

Preliminary results, he says, suggest that people who live in more walkable neighborhoods and those with less exposure to air pollution are less likely to have chronic conditions and may be less vulnerable to dying from COVID-19.

The COVID-conscious commute may begin before you leave home, Fan says. In some cities in China, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, pre-booking a seat is already common on city buses and trains. She suspects that adding the option of pre-paying for fares online or via smartphones could reduce the number of people who need to touch a grimy kiosk.

Last year, Google started using crowdsourcing and traffic information in more than 200 cities worldwide to give users a heads-up about how full they should expect buses and trains to be. Integrated with smartphone apps, all this information could reduce congestion by allowing passengers to avoid crowded platforms and vehicles. So far, this type of data has not been used by officials to enforce crowd spacing on public transport, Fan says, but applying the idea is conceivable, as China already uses similar technology to restrict road traffic.

Bikes: New bike lanes have already been popping up during the pandemic, appearing in cities from Berlin to Bogota. In recent weeks, Oakland, California, has closed 74 miles of streets to make room for cyclists and pedestrians, and many other places, including Seattle, Washington, and Milan, Italy, aim to permanently reduce car use.

Experts predict these bike lanes will create a self-perpetuating cycle, as the number of people biking boosts demand. During a major overhaul of the freeway through downtown Seattle, for example, the city temporarily turned traffic lanes into bus lanes, and then never took them away. Building 400 miles of bike paths in Paris would cost much less than—just two percent the price—an upcoming redesign of the city’s subway system.

Biking isn’t realistic for everyone, Walker says, and it tends to be more accessible to people who live close to their jobs. Still, a growing industry of electronic bikes could help people commute farther, especially if public transportation systems integrate their fare structures with bike-sharing programs to allow people to hop from bike to train to bike again, Frank says. E-bikes are already available through share programs in dozens of cities.

For some people, the future of commuting might be no commute at all. About half of adults with jobs in the U.S. are working from home during the pandemic, according to a report published by the Brookings Institution in April. That’s more than double the percentage who did some telecommuting two years ago. Close to 20 percent of chief financial officers surveyed by Brookings said they planned to permanently retain remote work for at least 20 percent of their workers.

This kind of societal shift could further reduce crowding and the spread of disease on mass transit, Levinson says, especially if people go into offices only occasionally, if they bike when they can, and if they get better about staying home when sick.

Still, maintaining strong public transit systems is a key component of vibrant cities, Fan says. Buses, trains, and other modes of public transportation bring people together across race and income, and that kind of mixing builds empathy in a way that sitting in your car doesn’t.

“Public transportation is a place where people experience urbanism,” she says. “It’s where people negotiate their differences.” National Geographic May 11

Robots to patrol European resorts

Tourists can expect to find robots patrolling and policing their holiday destinations to enforce social distancing rules under EU plans to save the summer break.

As well as mobile apps to track or trace infections, European Commission proposals for tourism envisage “artificial intelligence and robotics [to] underpin public health measures”.

Robots or drones will be used in places such as airports or crowded restaurants in resorts to make sure people keep at least 1.5m apart and could be equipped with “infrared cameras measuring temperature at a distance”.

They would also be deployed to enforce social distancing at beaches and popular attractions, the proposals say. Singapore has already used a four-legged robot named Spot which walks around parks broadcasting a recorded message to remind people to keep their distance.

Industry and governments are also looking at how robots can help take over disinfecting and cleaning, crowd management and smart booking systems in developments that could change the face of tourism for ever.

The EU has published guidelines on travel as states prepare to open their borders when lockdowns are loosened. Air travel will become less comfortable, as airports are stripped of benches and restaurants and bars remain closed. Airlines will not have to leave seats empty to enforce social distancing but passengers will have to wear masks. Restrictions on movement, such as using the lavatory, will be enforced on flights.

Carry-on luggage could be limited and people will have to arrive much earlier on staggered booking slots for their flights to keep airports free from crowding. Hotels will be advised to introduce online booking for swimming pools, restaurants and gyms. The Times May 14