HAMISH MCRAE: Covid vaccine passports can lift London… as capital may have lost half a million people
It looks as though London may have lost half a million people through the pandemic. We don’t know the numbers – one estimate put the decline at 700,000 – but we do know that the centre of the city is deserted.
We know too that while London will eventually recover, as it always has in the past, the slog back may take years. That will be a huge drag on the UK economy as a whole. So what’s to be done?
Well, one thing will be to make it possible for people to come to the place. In 2019, some 180million people flew through London’s six airports, more than any other place on earth.
Deserted: It looks as though London may have lost half a million people through the pandemic
Remember that aside from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, there are also Luton, City Airport and Southend. The plea from the UK big three for Government help (see below) is of course about their loss of business. But it is also a plea for the economy, particularly in London.
People tend to think that the economy will be successful whatever happens. I fear the mayor, Sadiq Khan, thinks that way. To judge by the lack of priority the Government gave to financial services in its Brexit negotiations, it rather assumes that too.
But this is not just about finance, which seems to be weathering the storm better than its detractors expected. The issue is how the huge web of talented people, many from abroad, that bustle together in jobs grand and modest, will recover their livelihoods.
One example. Half the audience of the West End’s theatres are foreign tourists. So when they eventually reopen, how big will those audiences be if people cannot fly here? And how many people, not only in the theatres but in the pubs, coffee bars and restaurants near them, will find their jobs gone?
To get travel moving again will require on-the-spot testing and vaccine passports. The hotels quarantine plan is at best a short-term emergency policy, and at worst a shutting-the-stable-door one. It is worth looking at, but in the context of allowing Britons to go on holiday to the Continent.
Much more important is to find a way of allowing foreigners to come freely into the UK. Other countries, including Sweden, are looking at digital passports. Since the UK is in the lead in its vaccination programme, it would make sense to be in the lead in vaccine certificates too.
Things of the past: In 2019, some 180m people flew through London’s six airports, more than any other place on earth
Getting London moving is a much more complex task. Politics don’t help. Helping the richest place in the country would appear to run counter to the levelling-up agenda of the Government. Having a mayor who attacks the Government, and a phalanx of hostile opposition MPs does not help either.
Some London policies, such as trying to cut down traffic, will inevitably slow the recovery. When London was booming you could get away with policies that were a drag on growth. When it is flat on its back, you absolutely can’t.
What is needed is a two-stage plan. There has to be something festive to mark the reopening.
The obvious model would be the show the city put on for the Olympics. Obviously it cannot be quite like that, but London somehow needs to celebrate that it is back in business and that people from all over the world are welcome.
Then it has to slog away at the string of detailed policies – including transport – to make Londoners feel the place is being better run. And there are more general issues, such as how to rebuild the creative arts industry and how to encourage a return to office life.
This all needs care and thought. The task is to make it a three-year recovery, not one that takes a decade or, perish the thought, even longer.