4 COVID measures which will be here to stay... even when the pandemic is over

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·6-min read
A shopper adjusts her face mask on Oxford Street om London on July 24, 2020, after wearing facemasks in shops and supermarkets became compulsory in England as a measure to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Face mask use is among the practices likely to stay once the pandemic is over. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

The government is aiming to remove all restrictions on social contact on 21 June. But that doesn’t mean life will revert back to exactly how it was before 31 January last year, when the UK’s first two confirmed coronavirus cases were announced.

When a country is hit by a pandemic of this scale – 456,807 people have been admitted to hospital and 126,670 people have died to date – it changes the way we live.

So, while the rules the government has imposed on us over the past year will eventually be dropped, it doesn’t mean all of the measures set out within them will stop being part of our lives.

Here, Yahoo News UK takes you through some of the coronavirus measures which are here to stay... even when the pandemic is over.

1. Face masks

When Boris Johnson announced England’s road map out of lockdown on 22 February, there was no indication if face masks will still be required when people are in shops and using public transport.

Instead, a review was commissioned, and this has yet to be published.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 25: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks up Downing Street in London, United Kingdom on March 25, 2021. Members of Parliament debate and vote later today on a six-month renewal of the wide-ranging government powers contained in the Coronavirus Act. (Photo by David Cliff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

However, one of the UK’s leading coronavirus scientists has suggested that while masks are unlikely to remain a legal requirement, this measure could remain in place more out of people’s habits.

Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling convinced Johnson to impose the first lockdown in March last year, told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday last week: “People have got used to being very cautious around each other, used to wearing masks.

“I think it’s quite possible that this pandemic, which has been an immensely traumatic event for this country and for the world, will cause significant long-term cultural changes, behavioural changes in the population.”

He said, for example, it is routine in south-east Asia for people to wear masks if they have a cold or any sort of respiratory disease.

Last year, Dr Pierre Chan, a leading medical doctor and lawmaker in Hong Kong, also told Yahoo News UK of face mask use there: “Because we had a very painful experience with SARS in 2003, most of our citizens are very alert about these things. Whenever there is something wrong, we prepare ourselves.”

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday last week, meanwhile, health secretary Matt Hancock said he hopes face masks will become a matter of "personal responsibility" in future.

"We will eventually see COVID as something that has to be managed, rather like flu," he said.

“And the continued efforts that people will take personal responsibility for, like mask wearing, people will highly likely do this to protect themselves and others after the experience we’ve just had."

Watch: PM hopeful UK will see through COVID roadmap to freedom

2. Social distancing

Like face mask use, the government is reviewing how social distancing could be removed once lockdown ends.

But the reality is that – as we have been regularly told by the likes of England's chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty – COVID is not going away.

And comments from leading scientists have suggested there will be a need for some social distancing measures even when restrictions have been lifted.

Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser Prof Mark Woolhouse warned on Sunday of the need to be “alert” for many years to come.

People queue outside a Morrisons supermarket in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear. Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for almost 18 million people across London and eastern and south-east England following warnings from scientists of the rapid spread of the new variant of coronavirus. (Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)
People form a socially-distanced queue outside a Morrisons supermarket in Whitley Bay. (PA Images via Getty Images)

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: “There are still going to be situations where we might need to use personal protective equipment, we might well need to do some kind of social distancing, put some kind of biosecurity measures in place."

Dr Mary Ramsay, Public Health England’s head of immunisation, also suggested on Marr on 21 March that “lower-level” restrictions – such as social distancing as well as face masks – could be in place for a “few years” until the rest of the world is better vaccinated against COVID.

Health minister Helen Whately did not deny this on 22 March, telling BBC Breakfast: “There is a specific piece of work going on to look at what social distancing measures we are going to be needing and I don’t think I should pre-empt the outcome of that work.”

3. Remote working

As with face masks and social distancing, the government's work from home guidance is also under review.

While many workers have missed face-to-face interaction, many others have enjoyed the flexibility that home working offers, not to mention the removal of the morning commute.

TOPSHOT - Few commuters wait on the platform for the metro train during the rush hour time of 0800 at Clapham Common, London on March 17, 2020. - Britain stepped up its response to coronavirus, recommending household isolation, home-working and an end to mass gatherings to try to stem an accelerating outbreak. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A quiet Clapham Common Tube station during what would have normally been the morning rush hour in March last year. (AFP via Getty Images)

One thing for sure, though, is that chancellor Rishi Sunak doesn't want permanent home working to continue.

Urging companies to reopen their offices once restrictions are lifted, he warned on Friday last week that some staff could “vote with their feet” and defect to rival firms if they are not able to return.

Sunak said “you can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together". He also said young people would be unfairly disadvantaged by remote working.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 03: Chancellor Rishi Sunak holds press conference on 2021 Budget on March 3, 2021 in London, England. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented his second budget to the House of Commons. He has pledged to protect jobs and livelihoods as the UK economy has faced crisis during the Coronavirus Pandemic.  (Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak (Getty Images)

Whether he likes it or not, however, a degree of home working is here to stay.

On Sunday, Bank of England deputy governor Sir Charlie Bean became the latest prominent figure to declare the traditional office-based working week is over, predicting firms will adopt a new flexible model after the pandemic.

Sir Charlie said that while few firms will stay with a completely remote working model, most will take a hybrid approach combining home and office.

Corporate giants including Nationwide Building Society, Santander, Centrica, NatWest and Capita have already confirmed they will move their workforces to hybrid working.

A survey last week also suggested half of businesses in London will support some form of remote working when the COVID crisis ends.

4. Hand sanitiser in shops

It's a feature of shopping we've all become used to over the past year: hand sanitiser stations at the entrances of stores.

Among the shops which have been open throughout lockdown are supermarkets. Yahoo News UK got in touch with the major supermarket brands to ask if they will continue to provide sanitiser for their customers after lockdown.

Of those which responded, Morrisons, Lidl and Waitrose confirmed they have no plans to stop doing this. Tesco and Sainsbury's only said they would "continue to follow government advice".

Read more:

New self-isolation advice for people who have had COVID vaccine issued by government

Life on the NHS front line: 'It's harder to watch patients die when can't see their family'

Given the virus will continue to circulate after the lockdown ends, and that Prof Chris Whitty has warned there will still be "significant numbers" of COVID deaths later this year, it feels implausible that Downing Street would suddenly stop telling shops to offer hand sanitiser.

England's deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, for one, said in an interview with The Sun in January: "The pandemic has changed a lot of things. It has changed the way you and I approach hand hygiene.

“We all carry hand sanitiser around now. We all expect in most of the places we go into that hand sanitiser is provided at the door.”

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown