UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems keen to please one set of traditional Tory voters – landlords – even if this could mean putting the health of thousands of office workers at risk.
Instead, he should use his creativity to turn some of the now-obsolete office spaces into ways to fulfil a more important pledge he made not long ago: fight obesity. And not just his own.
At the beginning of July, Boris Johnson was quoted by the media as saying: “I think everybody has sort of taken the ‘stay at home if you can’ advice — I think we should now say, well, ‘go back to work if you can’”. Johnson also said we should all try to live our lives “more normally”.
But what if normality has changed during the working-from-home months of the pandemic? What if it isn’t office workers who must return to work full-time, but landlords who must adapt to a new reality devoid of upwards-only revisions of leases and rent money coming in with little effort?
After all, working from home is possible and even more productive for most of the roles performed in offices, apart perhaps from client-facing ones and specialised ones such as trading and regulated roles.
Even in client-facing roles, videoconferencing and sharing presentations online have proven to be much more efficient, so the pattern could well shift towards more digital meetings and, say, a couple of in-person meetings per year per client.
Working from home could therefore become the norm at some point, with days in the office reserved for specific tasks such as meetings and collaborative work, and with fewer people in the office at the same time in order to diminish the chances of infection.
After all, this would make sense for companies. Not only would they save money on rent (as many of them would be able to renegotiate leases with the landlords, in light of the new realities) but they would also have happier and more productive employees.
Compare that with the risk of a whole department falling ill because someone inadvertently brought Covid-19 into the office, and the loss of business that could cause, and it is easy to see why a business would prefer to keep its employees working from home rather than see them take weeks of sick leave after spending a couple of days in the office.
Repurpose some office space
But with landlords staunch Tory supporters and commercial property in danger because of the new and rapid shift out of expensive city centre properties, Boris Johnson’s government is trying to put pressure on companies to return their employees to the offices.
Instead of issuing veiled threats (according to some media reports) that office workers may find themselves in the situation of having to choose between the danger of Covid-19 or that of unemployment, Boris Johnson’s government could try to be more creative.
The government could, for instance, call for ideas on repurposing at least some of the existing office space to make it suitable for other types of activity. One of these could be crucial for the fight against another epidemic: that of obesity.
Indeed, the prime minister himself admitted that being overweight might have contributed to the seriousness of his illness due to the Covid-19 infection, and a recent study found that obesity increases the risk of dying of Covid-19 by 48%.
While Boris Johnson has hired a personal trainer to help him lose weight, the almost 13 million obese people in England – double the number of two decades ago – are still without many options when it comes to dealing with their condition.
Sure, they could always eat less and move more. But that is easier said than done. When restaurants, and particularly fast-food outlets, abound but places to play sports are limited, there is no wonder people are getting fat.
For ordinary people trying to exercise in London, for example, there may seem to be plenty of options but in fact they sum up to two main ones: running and cycling. The government and the various borough councils have encouraged these two forms of exercise, probably because they are among the cheapest for the taxpayer.
More diversity needed
But if we are to be serious about tackling obesity, we must start from the premise that not everybody is able to, or likes, running or cycling. Other forms of exercise must be made available to people, but for the moment the UK, and London in particular, are lagging behind on this.
Despite the 2012 London Olympics, few alternatives to do sports exist for people to try to lose weight by actually enjoying sport, rather than regarding it as yet another chore to cross off the daily list.
For example, a Sport England report from 2017 put the number of swimming pools that would need to be built in London to meet demand at up to 33, on top of the existing 400.
That does not sound like much, but I would argue the report is not complete. The issue of pent-up demand is not addressed. That is, there are probably more people who would visit a swimming pool if one was available, but these are not captured in that report, as far as I can tell.
If we look at another example, let’s say skating rinks — ice and other surfaces, suitable for roller skating — London doesn’t impress with their number, either. The same goes for other places for sports such as gymnastics halls, indoor tennis courts, handball, volleyball or basketball courts, dance studios, etc.
Even where they do exist, most of these facilities are geared towards children or teenagers. The parents are usually just sitting and watching (and perhaps having a snack or two in the adjacent restaurants in the meanwhile). It doesn’t even occur to them to join in, as there would be no room for them.
Of course, there are quite a few gyms with weights and yoga and Pilates or spin classes dotted around. But not everybody enjoys those forms of exercise, either. Maybe there are adults who want to learn to skate, or play volleyball, or table tennis, and simply cannot find places to do these things.
So instead of trying to force people to cram into public transport and back into offices and restaurants in city centres, the government should try to find creative solutions to turn at least some of that real estate into destinations for people seeking to do other forms of exercise than the mainstream ones.
“If you build it, they will come” is a cliché that has too often been proven wrong. But what if it’s already built, and you only need to make a few adjustments? It could be well worth it. The rewards in terms of reduced spending on public health would probably be substantial.