It's difficult to find reasons to be cheerful as lockdown eases

Ipswich Cornhill

The "normal" life that we knew before the first lockdown still seems far away. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

This week life has started to feel just a little bit more normal with the reopening of non-essential shops, outside areas of pubs and cafes, and the much-needed ability to get a haircut.

But there's also been a focus on the future of our communities - highlighted by Ipswich Central's online conference looking at the future of town and city centres after the pandemic.

That was certainly thought-provoking with interesting contributions from local and national experts - but in all honesty I don't really think I found out anything I didn't already know.

I've heard for years that it is important to get more people living in the town centre, and that its economy should rely less on retail. I don't think I needed to be a genius to work out that a £400,000 flat on the Waterfront would have less space than a £400,000 detached home and garden on the edge of town.

And I'd also worked out that people who want to live in a connected town might be less reliant on private cars than those living in housing estates or the countryside.

I can see that is an attractive lifestyle choice for some people and I hope those promoting it can make it work - but I do fear it will take longer to get mass acceptance and will actually appeal to fewer people than its most ardent supporters believe.

I know city-centre living in attractive, if not particularly large, flats and town houses has become popular in some really huge places like London and Manchester.

But I'm not totally convinced the market for such homes is that great in Ipswich just yet - and I'm not sure that the experience over the last year will have helped the cause.

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The reopening of non-essential shops brought predictable queues to Primark and Debenhams - for its closing down sale. That does show there is an appetite for shopping in real stores rather than online.

However, part of me does think that if only there had been queues like that at Debenhams a few years ago then we might not be losing it from our high streets now!

I don't see the return of shoppers as the answer to the town centre's problems - it is a move in the right direction but it will only be when customers are able to visit the pubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres and cinemas that a real recovery will have started.

And importantly, it is the confidence of those customers that will be crucial.

Will those who have had the vaccine feel safe going out again? Or will the more cautious tone adopted by scientists and ministers recently persuade more of us to adopt a safety-first mentality?

I must admit the optimism I felt about the summer a few weeks ago has dissipated somewhat with all the talk about how it's the lockdown, not the vaccine, that has been the key driver in driving down the disease - and that another wave is set to strike us in the summer.

Over the last year we've heard a lot about "how we can get back to normal" and how we'll have to adapt to a "new normal."

While this week has seen a relaxation of some restrictions, it is quite clear that we are miles away from being where we were in February 2020 and while vaccines are a huge benefit, ministers and scientists no longer see them as the "magic bullet" out of the crisis.

I have no doubt that things will ease further next month and in June. but the idea that all restrictions will have disappeared by June 21 now seems increasingly unlikely given the statements from the government.

For all those reasons, I'm starting to accept that we will never truly return to the carefree Covid-free lives we enjoyed 15 months ago.

I find it difficult to see how full theatres and cinemas can operate in the same way as before again, the prospect of having to take unreliable Covid tests two days in advance of any trip to a major event will probably consign many things into the "more trouble than its worth category."

So despite my real desire to go into the current easing of restrictions with a feeling of optimism for the future, I find myself looking forward to the next few months with a sense of concern that despite everyone's best intentions life just will never be the same any more.

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