This week a new London is expected to start, cautious to contain Covid but ready to return. It depends on each of us. The danger is real. If you talk to people who look to the planet from a city in the middle of the world, they’ll confess their fear of London’s death to you.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that most of the nine million people who live here will leave. London will continue as will countless nice cities across Europe. But the magic that makes London is in great danger. A ghost town is really not a town at all. The accidental genius that makes our city a place people all over the world envy and want to visit and live, the mix of people from all walks of life, the variety which means that by reading this thousands of people in London are looking to eat amazing food, seeing amazing art, starting new businesses, worshiping, playing, creating… it’s all in trouble. Living in the twilight of the recovery, London is only on the water; and every hour sinks a little more.
To say that London as we know it is in danger of dying may seem like a misuse of language, given the terrible losses from Covid. So many families in our city have suffered in recent months. But collectively, our city has also suffered.
Many of us have thought of this period as bad weather, which must pass. We now know that it will not pass quickly, unless by our own efforts we banish it. You have to get out of a kind of stupor. Until a vaccine is developed, Covid is here to stay and we can live with it. But even without the vaccine, infection rates are now low, and hospital admissions and deaths, thankfully, much lower. Certainly, with the onset of winter, infections will surely increase. But every day that we live with this terrible disease is a day that we have learned more about how to handle it, how to contain it, how to treat it. That doesn’t make it sure – it never will be. It means that we should start living our lives again.
But managing Covid is only half the answer London needs. The other part is consistent leadership. Where is it? What a difference it would make by the end of this year if, by then, London did everything to get stronger, busier and shine again.
We can do it. Today, the Evening Standard calls for a new start for our city. First, we need the return of our schools to be part of a broader revival of activity. What kind of society are we, if we believe that it is safe and vital for young children to travel and meet, while preventing many adults from doing the same? In August, we ate in the millions at our subsidized restaurants, but if it’s safe to eat out, it must be safe to do other things too. It means truths for people who have been fortunate enough to work from home during the long summer days. Since the onset of this crisis, others – many, many more – have gone to work to feed us, to keep us safe and healthy. More of us must join them.
Work from home and nothing else is no future, for example, if you have just graduated from college ready to bond with other people who will make successful careers. The old commuting model will change, and that’s a good thing: the five-day office week was about to end before Covid. And the fact that so many people don’t want to return to the office should be a sign to bosses that the workplace is already broken and miserable. But a suburban future where working from home really means living at work is not a long-term vision, especially for a city like London. We could complain about the weaknesses of Westminster and City Hall to make us return to the center, but that’s not the fault. Our leaders, local and national, must come out and be seen as part of the recovery. Getting into the tube would be a good start. But leadership also means something else. It’s no surprise that people don’t know what to do when the story they hear from the government is chaotic. Last week, the Prime Minister appeared to urge people to return to work, when the Health Secretary warned of a second lockdown. An inconsistency like this is toxic to trust. Caution has its place. But caution should not be allowed to cover shyness. Boris Johnson was never chosen because of his vision or his mastery of detail, but he was supposed to be able to communicate. The time has come for him to do so.
There is also something London needs. Confidence in the future. We need to know how London will adapt to life with Covid. We need to know that our public transport systems are safe, as is, and that they should be used. We need a city that, with good planning, finds homes that people can afford in the center, a city with cleaner air and green spaces. We need to hear from leaders that companies can be innovative and adapt to the current needs of employees. If Covid offers us anything, it’s a chance to do it right.
We cannot destroy everything that makes our city what it is by protecting ourselves from a disease that we have already begun to conquer. London has genius. Genius isn’t something you can put to sleep and then turn it back on later. Stifled, the genius of London is already atrophying.
Let’s stop this now. Yes, it will take courage to start our life over in London. But this week, we have to find him.