Lockdown lifestyles: how has Covid changed lives in the UK? | Health & wellbeing

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It’s nearly two years since the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced the first national Covid lockdown and, for many Britons, life feels close to normal.

As of Thursday, there are no longer any restrictions in England – no legal requirement to wear masks or to self-isolate after a positive Covid test. But have our lives changed in other ways that will outlive the pandemic? Have our habits changed for good?

Working from home

The pandemic has given us a new shorthand: WFH. And it’s here to stay, with one-third of people still working from home at least some of the time. Many companies are now planning to introduce a hybrid model that combines days in the office with time spent working at home.

The government’s guidance that Britons should work from home where possible was scrapped in January after a few false starts. But not everyone is in a rush back to conversations around the water cooler.

People in the UK are still spending more time at home and less time in offices, according to data from Google’s community mobility reports.

There has been some recovery in footfall at stations and workplaces since the first lockdown. However, the latest figures for the week to 11 February 2022 show that activity still remains 29% and 21% below pre-pandemic levels.

Google mobility line chart

ONS data shows that around a third of working adults did their jobs from home in 2022. That figure fell from 36% at the end of January to 31% in mid-February, suggesting that some employers are encouraging their employees to return to the office.

Many employers plan to implement a hybrid model in future to respond to their employees’ demands for more flexible schedules following the pandemic. Daniel Wheatley, a researcher specialising in work-life balance at Birmingham University, thinks this is a good idea, since workers benefit from extra personal time and employers from improved morale and retention.

But he said this would only work in the long term if employers redesign jobs, for instance by focusing office time on collaboration and teamwork and home-working on task completion, and if they trust their employees to perform.

ONS line chart of % WFH

Some employers are likely to be resistant, especially those who are driven by “micro-management and assumptions that effort has to be extracted from workers rather than them offering it willingly”, he said.

Although the exact blend of home and office is a personal preference, one thing is clear: working from home will be a feature of some jobs for a long time after the pandemic has ended.

Escape to the country?

The pandemic prompted an exodus to the country as people working from home became eager for bigger living and garden spaces, which resulted in rural house prices and rents shooting up. However, there are early signs that people are returning to cities.

Covid and lockdowns made many rethink their work/life arrangements. Rural house prices in England and Wales soared, resulting in fears of an affordability crisis in some areas.

This was especially true of London-dwellers who fled the capital in large numbers and helped push prices outside the capital to record levels. Londoners spent an average of £487,000 on properties outside the capital last year, according to estate agents Hamptons.

Bar chart of Londoners moving to countryside

They also benefited from a temporary stamp duty holiday introduced by the government to buoy the housing market after the first lockdown, which gave would-be movers an incentive to buy in late 2020 and early 2021.

David Fell, a senior analyst with Hamptons, said 2021 marked “the single largest migration out of London in a generation”.

He predicted that this year numbers would return closer to 2019 levels as a result of fewer sales taking place and a lack of available countryside properties, but that they would remain higher than pre-Covid times. “We’re also expecting the price gap between London and the commuter belt to continue shrinking, meaning London equity will go less far than five years ago,” he said.

Fell says early data from 2022 indicates that London’s first-time buyers are more open to moving further out to take advantage of cheaper property prices as they spend more time working from home. Just under half of first-time buyers living in London have bought outside the capital in the year to date, more than double the proportion 10 years ago.

While a long-term exodus from big cities may not materialise, the shift from offices to home working may shape the future of the housing market.

Struggling or saving?

While lockdown allowed people in stable office jobs to work from home and save money on commuting and sandwich-shop lunches, others burned through their savings. The result is a growing divide in the financial health of the nation, with more families than ever living in the red.

With lockdown spelling a temporary end to restaurants, pubs, clubs, cultural venues and foreign travel, lots of people unexpectedly found it easier to save.

Estimates by Capital Economics and Refinitiv suggest Britons collectively saved £4.6bn a month in 2019. But between March 2020 and the end of 2021, the average amount saved each month climbed to 2.6 times the 2019 average.

Bar chart of UK excess savings

However, these gains were far from universal. A Bank of England survey from autumn 2020 found that 42% of workers in high-income households had increased their savings since the beginning of the pandemic compared with just 22% of those on low incomes.

Jonquil Lowe, an economist specialising in personal finance at the Open University, said the reason for this disparity was that low-income households spend a higher proportion of their income on essentials, which can’t be cut back. ONS data suggests the poorest tenth of households usually spend 43% of their income on food, housing and bills, compared with 24% for the richest tenth.

This has “exacerbat[ed] the inequalities that already existed in the UK economy” and the savings gap would only grow wider in the coming years given rampant price inflation, she said.

Bar chart of pandemic savings change by socioeconomic group

Lowe said that constructive solutions to the savings gap would be for the government to pay for the pandemic by taxing the income and wealth of richer people, instead of replicating the response to the 2008 financial crisis and cutting benefits, public services and public sector pay, or offering “hollow advice” to poorer households to build up their savings.

“Despite being battered by Brexit and the pandemic, the UK is still one of the wealthiest economies in the world and it is shameful that 11.7 million are living in absolute poverty,” she said.

International travel

Foreign holidays were banned or curtailed for much of the pandemic, while business travel ground to a halt. Will our taste for domestic holidays and Zoom conferences endure?

Alongside hospitality, travel was one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, underlined this week by Heathrow’s passenger numbers falling to their lowest level in almost 50 years.

Planes were grounded in early 2020 as countries imposed tough international travel restrictions. This was followed by constantly shifting international travel policies, such as testing regimes and the UK’s traffic-light system, that confused many travellers.

Daily UK flights – both international and domestic – stood at an average of 664 between April and June 2020, according to ONS data. This was just 10% of the daily average for the same months in 2019.

Two years on, flight numbers have not returned to previous levels. The latest ONS data shows that in the month to 13 February 2022, there was a daily average of 3,067 flights. While this is an improvement on 865 in that same period in 2020, it is still just 61% of the pre-pandemic level of the 2019 figure of 5,039.

Line chart of UK international flights

Indeed, industry predictions suggest that there won’t be a return to pre-Covid numbers until 2023-24. Leon Davis, an academic at Teesside University researching the impact of Covid on tourism, said that although the UK government was predicting an earlier return, consumer confidence had been knocked by the Omicron variant, and people remain confused by countries’ differing entry rules.

“This will continue in the winter of 2022/23 as it is highly unlikely there will be a full global lifting of restrictions, and particularly if cases rise in different parts of the globe,” he said.

Lots of people opted for UK-based holidays during the pandemic, and a 25% increase in visitors is expected this year compared with 2019, but Davis expects that the cost of UK travel and accommodation, and its limited availability, will encourage people to return to overseas trips.

While lots of businesses have adapted to hybrid conference models, many will return to in-person attendance since this tends to be better for marketing and advertising, he added.

Shopping habits

The pandemic has changed the way we shop. More people do grocery shopping online and demand for delivery services has shot up. Since lockdown has lifted, footfall in shops remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Brits already loved to shop online pre-pandemic, but during lockdown – when non-essential businesses were closed and we were advised to avoid leaving home – ordering groceries and luxuries online became even more popular.

While official figures show a recent fall, online sales still account for over a quarter of total retail sales. According to the ONS, online sales jumped from 21% to 31.5% of total retail sales between the first and second quarter of 2020. This peaked at 36% in early 2021 after England’s third national lockdown. This was the highest level recorded since the data was first collected in 2007.

Line chart of internet sales as a share of total retail sales

In January, the share of internet sales within retail fell to 27%, continuing a broad downward trend since its peak in January 2021.

Retail analyst Bryan Roberts said the popularity of online shopping was plateauing as people returned to their pre-pandemic behaviours. “A decent chunk of shoppers will continue to allocate more of their spending online, but we need to remember that shopping is also a fundamental leisure activity, with trips to high streets and shopping centres still part of people’s routines,” he said.

“Some of the online shift, both in food and non-food, will be permanent. Many shoppers tried online food for the first time and will have liked what they found in terms of convenience. Other shoppers will have joined schemes like Amazon Prime and will continue to shop for the majority of general merchandise through Amazon and other retailers.

“That said, online will continue to decelerate as people return to pre-pandemic behaviours such as trawling round the shops at the weekend. Also, online is supremely convenient if you’re at home seven days a week, less so if you’re back in the office three or four days a week.”

Not going out

We watched more TV than ever before, and industry experts warn that cinemas and theatres may never be as popular again. Meanwhile, people replaced pubs and restaurants with home cooking and takeaways. Will they ever go back?

Lockdown massively disrupted our social lives, with after-work pints, restaurant visits, cinema trips and music gigs all ending abruptly.

Data published by the ONS from OpenTable show that bookings evaporated in March 2020, then rose as lockdown was lifted and reached a 2020 peak at the time of Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme in late August. They dried up again in December as Delta hit, before recovering slowly but steadily as summer 2021 approached. In mid-December 2021, there was a sharp dip when people cancelled Christmas bookings due to the Omicron variant.

The latest data indicates that Britons have fully regained their appetite for indoor dining, with bookings exceeding 2019 levels before and after the Omicron peak.

Cinemas also suffered during the pandemic. After several months of no attendance as a result of their forced closure, data from the UK Cinema Association shows that they enjoyed a bounceback in December, with monthly attendance figures exceeding 13.5m. Yet this represents just 73% of the audience cinemas attracted in December 2019, and ticket sales in January were only 49% of those sold in January 2020.

Line chart of cinema attendances

Cinemas’ losses were streaming platforms’ gains as viewers shifted indoors.

Streaming was already growing in popularity pre-pandemic with a total of 24m subscriptions to platforms in 2019, rising to 33m a year later. Projections by Ampere suggest that figure will rise further, boosted by the UK launch of Disney+ in the first national lockdown in March 2020.

Bar chart of streaming subscriptions

As TV critic and broadcaster Scott Bryan notes, “the pandemic resulted in five years’ worth of trends in about one year”.

“Streaming services saw substantial growth as many of us were having to spend our days staying in. Disney+ and Netflix were clearly big winners and there’s also been a change of mindset. We’re now more used to watching television when it suits us, rather than rotating our lives around the television schedules.”

However, he noted that cost of living increases, plus the fact that people are now going out a bit more, mean we might not be willing to pay for this into the future.

“Even though it is easier to unsubscribe from streaming services rather than cable or satellite, it can become prohibitively expensive to pay for them all individually. The growth of some streaming services has also slowed to a crawl, with Netflix announcing underwhelming growth in late 2021 and projecting equally underwhelming growth in 2022.”

Zooming in

Physical distancing rules meant that we socialised a lot less during the pandemic. Video calls replaced face-to-face meetings for work, while lots of social activities moved outdoors or online. But was any of this good for us?

When the first lockdown hit and people were asked to stay indoors, most people drastically cut down the number of people they encountered unless they worked in a frontline job.

Some of the biggest winners in this brave new world were video-conferencing platforms, with one company ruling them all: Zoom. As people were asked to reduce face-to-face contact, the company’s fortunes went through the roof, although they have since declined as normal life has resumed.

While many people have been able to continue socialising during the pandemic by shifting communication online, psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee warns that this was not the case for everybody, which could have a lasting impact on mental health.

“Technology enabled people to connect regardless of where they live, thus expanding social circles. But for those sheltering entirely alone, uncomfortable in the digital domain or lacking reliable access to it, feelings of loneliness have grown since Covid,” she said.

Line chart of share of people socialising indoors

She added that as our work and social activity migrated to Zoom, the lines between our in-person and digital lives increasingly became blurred.

“We’ve been able to toggle between digital spaces – between school or work screens, video games and Netflix – but doing so impacts the way our brain can help us get settled and focus on one thing at a time. We’ve also overstimulated ourselves, when what we really thought we were doing was soothing ourselves.”

Many people were glad to see the back of Zoom catch-ups as restrictions on socialising were eased, since most people do not consider them a genuine replacement for in-person contact, though people who are vulnerable or anxious about Covid have been left with no other option.

Two years later, most people are gradually returning to face-to-face contact, according to ONS data. Although no comparison is available with levels before the pandemic, the figures show that most people are happy to meet with friends and family indoors.

But Darian Nugent, senior strategic foresight writer at futures consultancy the Future Laboratory, says that a widespread shift in our work, living and socialising routines means that “the future of our working lives is a hybrid one”.

“Across Europe, the majority of those that adopted a hybrid routine note huge improvements in their flexibility, free time and relaxation, and its technology – and the growing sophistication of platforms like Zoom and Teams – that is really facilitating that.

“IRL meetings and conferences will return – these are still crucial to our relationships and wellbeing – … [but] businesses know that virtual processes have allowed them to make huge strides in accessibility, inclusivity and global reach.”

Looking to the future

Many people planned for the worst during the pandemic, with a sharp rise in the numbers writing a will. With restrictions lifted and the prime minister heralding a new era of living with Covid, ONS data shows people are still not optimistic about the future, with a third saying they expect the pandemic to continue for another year.

With the vaccine rollout at the start of 2021 came hope that the pandemic would soon come to an end. However, an ONS survey designed to capture the public’s attitudes throughout the pandemic shows that this optimism has since dissipated. The latest data from the ONS shows that, by the year’s end, more people thought it would take over a year for life to return to normal than in 2020.

ONS data also revealed that, in the two weeks leading to 13 January 2022, 13% of British adults thought life would never return to normal, while just 7% thought it would take less than six months for life to return to normal.

ONS pandemic polling chart

One indicator of the pessimism felt by people during the pandemic was how many wrote their wills to ensure that if they died people would know what to do and where to distribute their savings.

According to Farewill, which says it is the UK’s biggest will writer, the number of Britons making financial plans for after they die almost tripled in 2020. The biggest increase was among under-35s, with a 23% increase in will-writing among Generation Z, those aged 10-25.

Dan Garrett, CEO and co-founder of online will provider Farewill, said: “Writing your will is a task people always want to put off – but the pandemic gave people a reason to plan their will and funeral, because they were worried about dying. This will have an irreversible and positive impact on people’s attitudes towards death, dispelling the stigma.”

Farewill analysis found a strong connection between news events and will writing. For example, Prince Philip’s admission to hospital last year resulted in a 148% increase in people penning their wills, and the day the most wills were written in 2020 was when Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care. Charity donations in people’s wills surged, too.

“People are being more generous and selfless than they were before. During the pandemic, most conversations were about protecting other people,” said Garrett.

Methodological notes

Working from home: Google’s community mobility reports compare each day’s movement to a “baseline day”, which represents a normal value for that day of the week. This is the median value from the five-week period from 3 January to 6 February 2020.

Not going out: the streaming platforms covered by the Ampere analysis were Lovefilm, Netflix, Now TV, Amazon, Disney Life, ITV Hub+, Discovery+, Disney+ and BritBox.