Encouraging remote working as much as possible is one way to combat the spread of coronavirus without singling out any particular economic sector of demographic for more harsh measures.
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The government’s decision not to introduce new legal measures in the fight against the spread of coronavirus was the only logical outcome. But more can be done voluntarily.
It is unfortunate that the day after Xavier Bettel announced that there would be no fresh legal restrictions to combat the covid-19 pandemic, the grand duchy experienced a record for new daily cases. In the 24 hours up to Sunday evening, 242 people tested positive. It was the third day out of the previous four that the number of new infections had risen above 200. As Bettel said during his press briefing on Saturday, after an extraordinary meeting of cabinet, the situation is worrying. Infection rates are threefold what they were just one month ago. But latest statistics also show that hospitals are still coping with the pandemic--just four of the 50 or so patients being treated are in intensive care--and the average age of those infected has also dropped significantly. Indeed, over 53% of current infections are in people under the age of 39.
Prior to Saturday’s announcement speculation had been rife on what action the government would possibly take to combat the rising infection rate. Neighbouring countries, Belgium and France, had cracked down hard and introduced late-night curfews that threaten to severely damage many businesses in the hospitality sector. One industry insider told me that any further restrictions on opening times in Luxembourg would kill off all but a few highly profitable bars unless further government aid was forthcoming.
Singling out sectors is not the answer
And therein lies the dilemma faced by Xavier Bettel’s administration. Luxembourg can ill afford to deliver the sort of financial support it provided back in the spring. And there is little evidence to justify singling out any specific sector of the economy, or one particular demographic.
Targeting the Horesca and retail sectors is simply not on the cards, not only in terms of fiscal policy, but also because they suffered the biggest hit proportionally during the initial lockdown. Banning cultural events would be counterproductive when venues--just like the majority of bars and restaurants--have just spent significant resources in ensuring they can re-open safely with appropriate social distancing and hygiene measures in place.
Closing schools and crèches, which would mean re-introducing extraordinary paid parental leave, will further hurt the economy and unfairly punish kids who have already fallen behind in their education, not to mention those who have been subject to untold psychological damage. Shutting down the construction sector will mean further delays for major infrastructure projects that have already blighted the lives of commuters and businesses.
Returning to a ban on private visits from anyone outside of a household would be political suicide in a country where the majority of voters are used to gatherings of the extended family at the weekends.
And we all know that a total lockdown, of the sort we experienced in March and April, with police patrolling the streets to check on anyone who was outside, would spell disaster on so many levels.
So, there is no other option but to recognise--once again--that we are all in this together. It is a message that Bettel and health minister Paulette Lenert have reiterated on numerous occasions. Luxembourg has been lucky that it has not been blighted by anti-masker protests and most of the population seems to recognise the need to maintain social distancing.
But one message that the government really needs to hammer home is that remote working should be more widely used. Bettel alluded to this during Saturday’s briefing, but many employers don’t seem to be taking notice. His appeal to “maintain as few social contacts as possible” is surely applicable to shared office spaces, business meetings, and the daily commute, as much as it is to the leisure time socialising that Bettel said was the main area in which distancing was not being properly applied.
Reduced teams working in rotation--ideally two weeks at the office, two weeks at home--should surely be the ideal where possible. That would allow employers to maintain the sense that they have some control. It would allow staff to have that much-needed interaction with colleagues. It would mean local restaurants would still have some lunchtime business. It would cut down on commuter traffic and overcrowded public transport.
If we truly are all in this together for the duration of this pandemic--and that could mean well into the third quarter of 2021--then employers and staff representations need to work on solutions to ensure that a temporary “new normal” really does work for everyone.