We may be nearing the end of pandemic as new normal emerges

The former Birketts offices in Museum Street.

Town centre offices like these in Museum Street are being converted into homes. - Credit: Paul Geater

It is now 10 days since "Freedom Day" which was finally meant to mark the end of Covid restrictions - but in all truth has anything actually changed? It doesn't really feel like that.

And far from being a "return to normality" it is really difficult to see how things will ever go back to how they were before March last year.

There's no sense of regret in that statement. I don't want things to go back to how they were then, especially given the uncertainty about what is actually happening to the figures of infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

I've always thought that the pandemic and the lockdowns and restrictions we've been through over the last 18 months would be truly transformative for society as a whole, as well as our local communities.

That is happening in Ipswich. You only have to look at the planning applications that are coming forward for offices and other buildings in the town centre.

McCarthy Stone are finally getting on with redeveloping the site of our former offices in Lower Brook Street as retirement homes. An application has been made to turn offices in Princes Street into flats - and more could be created over a shop on St Margaret's Plain.

Offices at Princes Street, Ipswich could be converted into twelve flats

Across the town centre we are seeing applications to turn office space into flats - like this site in Princes Street. - Credit: Barefoot and Gilles

They are not major developments in themselves - but put alongside other changes in the town centre they do show that change is coming.

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Because the days of thousands of workers coming into offices in the town centre every day is almost certainly gone for good.

There will be some office space needed - and it will need to be high-quality office space for those businesses and workers who do want to come and work communally.

We have seen that in recent years when Birketts moved out of their long-standing offices in Museum Street to a purpose-built block in Princes Street.

But many will not want to struggle into the office every day - even to a comparatively easy centre to reach like Ipswich. If you live in Capel St Mary, would you want to struggle with the traffic on the Copdock junction every day if you can set up your laptop in the spare bedroom?

I've heard it said that some employers feel workers are more productive in their offices. I'm sure some workers are - but employers know their staff and know who works better at the office and who works better at home.

And the fact is that many, particularly older, workers simply don't want to go back to crowded offices with none of what we now call social distancing measures.

They don't want to sit right next to young colleagues who were out in a crowded pub or nightclub last night when there could have been any number of bugs circulating. 

Covid might remain the big fear - but many don't want to go down with the flu or even a cold if they can avoid it.

And while employers might feel that productivity improves for some staff in offices, I suspect that if they see an opportunity to downsize and have smaller offices with more people working at home they may jump at the chance to save money!

I know businesses that have done that. I also know employers who are still a long way from bringing everyone back - they don't want to be seen as being responsible if an outbreak of Covid or even a mass of "pings" runs through their premises.

And the fact is that whatever the daily statistics tell us, most people remain concerned and worried about the future direction of this virus and about what is going to happen with flu in the winter.

I'm not immune from that. Having been to the cinema a couple of times in May, I want to see an extended fall in the number of infections before I go back to see Marvel's Black Widow at Cineworld.

I'd certainly rather have a coffee outside a cafe than in (although that does risk getting an unwanted waft of tobacco smoke) and while I'd use public transport for vital journeys, I'm not ready to go for a leisure trip on the train.

But the fear of Covid is easing. If anything it's been overtaken by the fear of being "pinged". Once the threat of being confined to home simply because someone came near you in a supermarket queue has been taken away on August 16, that should go.

One thing that has pleased me over the last 10 days is that apart from a few people who have been filmed or photographed up close and personal in nightclubs or telling the world that they'll never wear a mask again, the vast majority of people do seem to be heeding advice from doctors and ministers.

Masks are still the norm in most shops I've been to (and there haven't been that many). People do seem respectful and understanding that there is still a danger out there. I suspect the numbers have a part to play with that.

This pandemic isn't over. It is going to change our lives and our society. Ipswich in particular is changing more rapidly than many realise.

But the new normal may just be starting to emerge.