Nicola Sturgeon summarised things perfectly when she advised that life should not feel normal for people right now. If it does, then those people are not doing the right things.
Increasingly, as the prospect of the kind of societal issues evidenced in Northern Italy looms closer, most people are starting to realise the scale of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks or months. What nobody has yet articulated is what life will be like when the CoronaVirus epidemic is eventually contained. How soon can things return to normal?
The easiest prediction to make is that life will not be the same as it was before the epidemic started. Governments across the world are doing as much as they can to offer financial support to businesses and employees through what may be the most difficult period of the crisis but when normality resumes it is difficult to imagine how the global economy will rebound and whether, as we experienced following the global recession in 2008, we will face another lost decade of growth through another period of crippling austerity.
There is already talk in the media of a coalition government being formed to ensure that any post Covid measures command the support of all political parties. And whilst government measures may lessen the immediate impact for business and employees by encouraging businesses not to declare significant redundancies, eventually the economic fundamentals will return and UK PLC will be forced to satisfy the expectations of its stakeholders by driving profitability, something which is usually enabled by them reducing costs, increasing prices or both. Eventually, that will create a tension between business and their customers, whether those customers are other businesses or consumers or even suppliers. Indeed, there is evidence of a reaction from some businesses that is already indicative of a self-sustaining ideology that will put others at risk.
For example, the decision of Tim Martin, the Wetherspoons CEO not to pay his employees during the next 8-weeks until the government has the systems in place for HMRC to give Wetherspoons the cash to compensate furloughed employees is not the type of behaviour that the Government wants employers to demonstrate. Similarly, the decision of Sports Direct to try to remain open by defining themselves as the provider of essential health equipment which, as an aside, has enjoyed significant price increases this week, is nothing more than a manifestation of the kind of behaviour that will probably evolve over the coming months. Even some motor insurers, the entity of last resort, are suggesting that some common law rights of individuals following a road accident should be varied in order to protect their profitability. Suggestions that if a policyholder suffers an accident and he has a supermarket within walking distance that he should be prepared not to hire a car for the duration it takes his own car to be repaired is an affront to common sense in the present circumstances. What if that supermarket closes and the next nearest supermarket is 12 miles away? What if, for reasons other than Covid 19, the victim needs to visit their GP and they start operating from large hubs away from their own practice? These are all issues that the man on the Clapham Omnibus has to confront during exceptional times and something he may have to deal with when the dusts settles and life returns to some form of normality.
Of course, businesses will face issues with other businesses too. I have heard of companies in the automotive sector writing to a single small supplier demanding a 3-month payment holiday (to be reviewed in three months) and threatening to invoke a right to terminate their contract citing Covid 19 as Force Majeure and the basis for terminating their contract. The number and complexity of these issues will only grow over the next few months. And as for local authorities engaging traffic wardens to patrol hospital car parks and issue parking tickets to over-worked and under-paid medical staff who are working marathon hours to keep the NHS afloat, words almost fail me.
Without doubt, whilst the current focus is on the spread of the disease and the need to keep people safe and retain as much of a sense of normality as possible, millions of employees and self-employed individuals will be contemplating their financial position over the next few months and many will be disappointed with some of the responses they receive or actions they experience delivered under the guise of ‘exceptional times require exceptional measures’. Businesses, and predominantly the smaller ones, will experience the same issues with their customers, suppliers or contracted counterparties. And those in society that are most at risk and most in need, those in receipt of medical or employment support or in rented accommodation will be protected in the short term but that protection may simply be delaying their exposure to conflict until later.
All of that said, now is not the time to crystallise or resolve those disputes. It is however, the time for individuals and businesses facing such challenges to record in detail the nature of any potential injustice they might suffer, however it might have been caused, in order that, when the time is right they can seek the appropriate advice, support and assistance to secure a just and equitable outcome. Keeping copies of all correspondence, making notes relating to any telephone conversations and recognising that now might not be the best time to resolve a dispute is key. That time will come, and I am delighted to be part of the Covid 19 Legal Task Force to ensure that I, together with a great many professional colleagues, can be best placed to provide the necessary and meaningful support and assistance when the time is right.
Dr Stephen Evans, Honorary Lecturer University of Portsmouth
Accredited Civil and Commercial Mediator