All the good news about vaccines has led to most of us looking at the rest of this year and wondering how long the lockdown can last and when life can get back to some semblance of normality.

Steve Norris

Whether that means the children back in school or taking a summer holiday, we are all trying to read the tea leaves. And this really matters. Looking after two kids doing home-schooling while trying to hang onto your own job via Zoom and Teams is soul-destroying for many.

I’m a sunny soul normally, but I happen to be a real glass-half-empty merchant on all this. It’s really good news that by the end of March, all those groups classed as high-risk will have been vaccinated. But that doesn’t mean life can get back to anything near normal. If all the restrictions are relaxed, infection rates will inevitably rise and we would soon be off yet again on that awful rollercoaster of lockdown and rising infection rates leading every news bulletin.

I cannot see life getting back to normal before the end of this calendar year

I’ve argued in the past that the cure is worse than the disease and while there is an intellectual case for that view, articulated as it still is by that eminent jurist Lord Jonathan Sumption, we now know that democratic governments around the world are simply not willing to see news cameras carrying pictures of crowded hospital wards and queues outside mortuaries.

I really cannot see life getting back to anything approaching normal before the end of this calendar year. Even then, we have to hope that these new variants that are popping up on a weekly basis these days are treatable by one, at least, of the various vaccines on offer.

And that brings me to a very sad conclusion, which is that there simply won’t be any rapid recovery. There will be no cork popping out of the virtual champagne bottle. I don’t foresee any sizeable tax rises in Rishi Sunak’s forthcoming budget, but sooner or later the furlough scheme will end and a very large number of those affected will find themselves transferred to a new form of support known as unemployment benefit.

High street shut shops

Source: Shutterstock/ Quirky Badger

Many small business owners in the retail and hospitality sectors or indeed in any so-called non-essential sectors will have gone bust. They may not have paid their rent or their VAT but they will have had to feed themselves and their families on no income. No amount of Help to Buy will work if you don’t have a pay slip to show to the building society.

Bearer of bad news

While we’re on the subject of the residential sector, someone needs to decide who is going to pay to rectify the cladding scandal that still persists. It has meant many social housing providers deferring new projects while they worry how this will affect them.

Just to add to this real barrel of laughs, I’m a serious bear on offices because the move to flexible working has been massively accelerated by the pandemic and whatever anyone tells you, demand for space will reduce as businesses regear.

I’m a bear on retail because we have become so used to shopping online that the high street will never be the same again. And I’m a bear on resi because too many people will be worrying about clinging on to the home they’ve got rather than looking to buy or rent a new one.

All this is for 2021. Next year, we ought to start the painful process of recovery and finding ways to pay off the massive debt we’ve accumulated without killing weak demand in the process. At least January’s over and we can all have the occasional stiff drink. Only one thing to do. Switch the portfolio and buy sheds. And then more sheds. You know it makes sense. Frankly, I’m not sure what else does in this crazy world.

Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built