Lessons from lockdown

Back in February, a lifetime ago, I was trying to convince one of my customers of the benefits of internet banking. She wasn’t convinced: she and her friends preferred having cheques that they could post to each other to pay for their charity group’s activities.

Last month, I thought of her as I was scratching around for planning the topic for this month’s article. This seems a very different place compared to three months ago so I’ve been asking people how they’ve been using ‘tech’ to make lockdown a little more bearable or even to carry on working in an isolating and isolated world.

Almost everything that follows has been suggested by someone who would laugh out loud at the idea that they were tech wizards or experts and yet, between them, they’ve managed to come up with some things that I, a proud geek, had not even considered.

Communications had undergone massive changes, even before lockdown began: the number of landline calls made has more than halved since 2012 whilst mobile phone calls have skyrocketed. But now, particularly amongst those with all their own teeth and hair, the ‘mobile’ part is more important than the ‘phone’ part and voice calls (and even text messages) are being replaced by online messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Keeping in touch under lockdown has transformed the fortunes of some companies: little-known videoconferencing company Zoom had 659,000 UK users in January. By April that had risen slightly to – checks notes – 13 million. Significantly, many of these were older tech users: the proportion of online adults aged 65 and over who make at least one video call a week increased from 22% in February 2020 to 61% in May 2020. We were all doing it!

Libraries reported a surge in online borrowing during lockdown, with England alone gaining 120,000 new library members in the three weeks after lockdown began – 600% up on last year. I was one of that 120,000, my old membership having apparently expired due to lack of use. Loans of online e-books, e-magazines and audiobooks in the same period were double the normal level, after libraries closed on 23 March. One of my survey panel described them as her lifeline. Visit Norfolk Library here.

It’s possible that (funding permitting) this could be more than a flash in the pan. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) believes this could turn out to be a watershed moment. “Not only are we attracting an entirely new audience, we’re able to demonstrate that the library is every bit as accessible online as it is in person,” said spokesman Nick Poole as CILIP launched The National Shelf Service, a daily YouTube broadcast of librarians’ recommendations of e-books for children, young people and families.

Virtual book launches and literary festivals have become the norm, often wildly out-performing the expectations for the real-world events they have replaced: one small organisation had cancelled a room booking for 60 people, in favour of an online book launch that attracted 280 live ‘attendees’. Another thousand watched a recording in the week after the event.

Events in cyberspace have become much more common across the board, as venues attempt to claw back even a tiny fraction of the income they’ve lost. Beth and I have spent several delightful evenings listening to live acoustic music ‘at’ the Green Note, a tiny venue in London with a capacity of 65 until social distancing came along. Some of their Virtually Green Note events on Youtube and Facebook have attracted ‘crowds’ of several hundreds, many of whom donate the suggested £10 ‘tip’, split between artists and venue.

Survival is the only thing small venues can hope for at this stage. These are the places where artists from the Beatles to Ed Sheeran learnt their craft, part of a music business that contributes £5 billion to the UK’s economy. Along with local shops, all small businesses need our help like never before.

Many shops, large and small, were sensibly reluctant to take cash payments during the crisis, and so some of us have tried out the new experience of paying for shopping with a contactless credit card or even (gasp!) a mobile phone. This has also led to the realisation that, if you ‘bonk and pay’, you don’t need to visit a cash machine anything like as often – health and safety taken care of at the same time.

Although supporting local businesses is incredibly important – not just during a pandemic – when the lockdown restrictions were at their most restrictive many of my respondents turned to online shopping. Some were trying it for the first time while others were old hands, but many found they were buying even everyday staples like tea and cereals in a bid to avoid queues and infection.

Tesco reported that online sales for the three months to May increased by 48 per cent, whilst Sainsbury’s and Waitrose also reported strong online growth. I rather suspect that a fair few people will find that they like the convenience and simplicity of the process and not return to their old ways…

Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas for this article. I could not fit them all into the space available, so next month we’ll have some more. Although some of the ideas will likely fade as, God willing, the virus begins to recede, many of them would still be applicable in the future for those who can’t get out, those who have found something new, and those trying to find a greener way of doing something they already do.

Even though I never did persuade that lady of the benefits of internet banking when you live in a village without a bank, one of our friends had this to say: “I was always against internet banking, thought it was too risky…but we had the outside of our house painted in April. The guy only wanted payment directly into his bank account. He didn’t want cash or cheque…so needs must….. I went on line and found out how to go about it. A week later I was all set up with internet banking and I love it! So easy to check my balance, pay bills etc and wish I’d done it years ago!”

Respect science, respect nature, respect each other. Take care.

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