The coronavirus crept up on us, in some ways. It began with a single illness in China in mid-November 2019, a 55-year-old in Hubei province, some records suggest, and it wasn’t until January this year that it became clear that there was an epidemic of this new respiratory disease in the city of Wuhan. In March, the World Health Organisation declared there was a pandemic of coronavirus, and, since, then, nothing has been the same.
That our world has been transformed is beyond dispute. “Self-isolation”, “lockdown”, “social distancing”—these are the linguistics of the new reality. I’ve been at home in the countryside for five weeks now, my bi-monthly trips across the Atlantic almost like a folk myth, the usual round of meetings and breakfasts and lunches unthinkable now. I was already well used to conference calls, but they’ve become an absolute staple of existence, and I’m ruing the fact that I wasn’t a shareholder in Zoom or Skype or Epic Games, who own the creators of the Houseparty app.
This is how we work now, and it’s been entertaining to watch public figures develop ever-more polished and professional-looking settings for their remote interviews, with carefully ordered bookshelves and mobile devices adjusted to the perfect height and angle. Even Parliament is in on the act now, with the House of Commons operating partly over Zoom (the Lords are on Microsoft Teams and thus far have not opened their new procedures to the public), and, while some people hate the distance and delay which it imposes, I have to confess that I’ve rather come to like it.
My eye was caught last week by a letter to a local newspaper, which found its way into the limelight of Twitter. Short and to the point, it posed a simple question: with the NHS under pressure as never before, and working patterns changing perhaps for ever, why are we still pushing ahead with a plan which will see us spend £100 billion on HS2?
The arguments behind HS2 are straightforward: construction of this new high-speed network dramatically cut the journey times from London to the North of England, and make a huge addition to the capacity too. A spokesman for the project noted that it would carry more people per hour than two motorways.
That’s fine. There are a dozen minor arguments you can make—Manchester and Leeds hardly mark the northernmost point of our United Kingdom; £100 billion is a lot of money and represents a budget that seems dangerously expansionist; the timeframe for the project keeps extending, with a current end date of 2035; the creation of this new infratsructure network is devastating for the areas through which it is to run. But these are second-order questions, fundamentally, because none of them challenges the central assumption, which is that we need HS2 at all.
I’m not one of these doom-mongers who opposes and grand public works project and foresees expensive catastrophe round every corner. Sometimes you need to spend big to achieve great things, and you certainly can look at the Channel Tunnel for evidence of that. Yes, it ended up costing around £16 billion in today’s money, but there’s no doubt that it has revolutionised our concept of travel to the Continent. It would be an eccentric decision now to fly from the South of England to Paris or Brussels: probably more expensive, probably less convenient, possibly no quicker and certainly more environmentally damaging than letting the train take the strain.
I do, though, think that HS2 needs a serious rethink, if it’s not to look like the UK fighting the last war. Patterns and methods of work were already changing before coronavirus. Shortening train journeys was posited on the notion that time spent on a train was ‘dead’ time: unproductive and out of contact. That’s simply not true now. WiFi is a given (though of varying reliability), and business people can be in constant contact with their clients, customers and colleagues as they travel between one city and another. You might be out of the office, but you’re never really away from your desk.
Much more significantly, though, the very notion of an office, and of face-to-face meetings, is being challenged by force majeure. Told that we can’t connect physically with people to do business, we’ve discovered that, in fact, we don’t need to. When the crisis ends, and it will, only a fool would expect things to go back to the way they were. The whole construct around which we’ve built our working lives has changed, and some of that is for good.
Which brings us back to the £100 billion. As a yardstick, that’s not far off the NHS’s annual budget. Of course, the Government’s selling it as an investment in our future, building infrastructure so that we’re competitive, but, really, is that true? The more I think about it, the more I think it’s an investment in a way of work that just doesn’t exist any more. The beat of the black swan’s wings has created a huge white elephant.