Despite the contrast between the crowds cheering the end of World War Two in Europe and today’s almost deserted streets, there are also parallels that bring hope says, Jo Edwards Head of the South West and South Wales at Colliers International.
The black and white photographs and film footage showing how crowds took to the streets on 8 May 1945 to celebrate the end of World War Two in Europe has highlighted the dramatic social changes brought about by the Covid-19 crisis.
Today the streets are largely deserted, as the nation prepares to embark upon moving cautiously out of the lockdown that has been in effect since 23 March.
The prospect of so many people gathering in such close proximity is unthinkable for the immediate future.
Venturing beyond our homes will involve social distancing and in many cases protective masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. Businesses are having to reconfigure layouts and change working arrangements to ensure distancing can be maintained when staff return to their buildings, including at the South West and South Wales office that I am head of at commercial property company Colliers International.
How different life is now compared to the way it was on VE (Victory in Europe) Day 75 years ago. The pubs were open then, and had been throughout the war, and social interaction was part of daily life, at the heart of communities. Today, we stand apart from each other on markers at 2m intervals on the floors of supermarkets and on pavements, and visiting pubs and restaurants is unlikely to be possible for some time.
The crowds of people who poured out of their homes in May 1945 to rejoice in the streets and pubs, and who held street parties all over the country, were celebrating victory over Germany in Europe. They were surely also enjoying having a sense of certainty, after years of fear since the outbreak of war in September 1939.
At present, there is no such certainty yet in the battle against Covid-19. Although there are hopeful signs that it will eventually be possible to control the virus through a vaccine, and also through improved medical treatments, people are likely to continue to feel fearful for some time.
Nevertheless, there are some important parallels between the challenges that people faced 75 years ago, and the challenges that people are facing today.
The Second World War, which finally ended in September 1945 with the Japanese surrender, took a huge toll on the UK economy. In order to avert bankruptcy, the nation had to borrow $4.34 billion from the United States and Canada. The last repayment was made in 2006.
Post-War austerity meant that life was hard, and people who had already endured rationing and other privations during the war had to cope with further rationing and controls during the late 1940s.
People back then might have found it hard to envisage a period of post-war prosperity. But, as we now know, that was what happened. The post-war Labour Government introduced bold social changes, bringing in the welfare state and creating the National Health Service. In the 1950s, there was full employment, with more people owning home and cars than ever before. The then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, famously told the electorate: “You’ve never had it so good!”.
For although the war caused had devastation and brought about challenges, it also instigated changes which in turn created opportunities.
The German bombings of World War Two meant there was a need to rebuild Britain. New homes, schools and hospitals were also built around the country, and also new towns. Here in the West Country, there was extensive reconstruction in the bombed cites of Bristol and Exeter, in my home county of Devon.
So will the challenges that we are facing, and will continue to face, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting financial damage bring new opportunities that will ultimately create economic impetus?
The changes Covid-19 has brought to society in the short-term have been dramatic and demanding. Looking ahead to the longer-term, there will almost certainly be challenges to cope with as new ways of working, shopping and socialising are introduced.
Change is always difficult but, just as after the Second World War, the challenges that changes resulting from Covid-19 will bring to modern society could also bring opportunities. Furthermore, the West Country is arguably well-placed to embrace many of those opportunities, with its strong tourism and technology sectors.
When the day comes that people are able to join together in crowds in the streets and pubs again then that would be the ultimate victory. But until then, even if we cannot gather in the way that the VE Day crowds did, every incremental evolution towards what is being called the ‘new normal’ will be a small victory in itself.
Jo Edwards is head of the South West and South Wales at commercial property services firm Colliers International.