Practitioner's viewpoint - Dec 20

09 November 2020

Louise Ward looks at future opportunities driven by the pandemic, and how we can build back better.

WELL, WHAT an extraordinary year it’s been! 12 months ago we’d never have foreseen the extent or the pace of the change that was about to occur in both our working and our personal lives. But as we approach the end of the year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the future. Scientists and politicians are optimistic that vaccines, new medicines and low cost rapid test kits will shortly allow us to relax stringent restrictions that we have been forced to accept in the fight against COVID-19. So will we just slip back into our old routine? I suspect not. 

It feels as if this pandemic has reset our attitudes to work, the economy, and to our personal and social lives. Surely this is an opportunity to make a step change and drive forwards toward a new ‘normal’ that addresses some of the big issues of our time. The Government certainly think so. They’re talking about infrastructure investment as a route to economic recovery, and are calling on businesses to collaborate in the initiative to ‘build back better’. But in the aftermath of the most significant peacetime crisis in modern history, will we have the courage to make big decisions, and build on the unexpected benefits that have resulted from the pandemic to drive real and positive change for the future?

Lockdowns have driven significant improvements in air quality, particularly in city centres, right across the world, confirming that moving away from traditional internal combustion engines should be a key component in our fight against climate change. But what are the alternatives? Electric vehicles are becoming more common, but battery technology is still a significant limitation in terms of range, and manufacturers seem to be favouring ‘plug in’ or ‘self charging’ hybrids as a more marketable alternative. Unfortunately there is an element of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ about these vehicles. Research a reveals that few owners bother to charge their hybrids, and even when they do, the very limited battery capability means that there is little difference in terms of overall emissions as the vast majority of the mileage is done using the traditional internal combustion engine.

Why has this not driven a movement towards fully electric vehicles? Largely because there is no national standardised network for charging. More charging points are being installed, but maintenance is patchy, they aren’t all compatible with every type of vehicle, and many require preregistration to a particular payment scheme before use. Few drivers will commit to fully electric vehicles until they can be confident in their ability to refuel at will, just as they do in their petrol and diesel vehicles. To realise the potential carbon saving, we need some real leadership and investment from the government, to drive a collaboration with manufacturers, standardise charging equipment, and promote widespread installation of a open access charging infrastructure. We have the expertise here in the UK, and there is the opportunity to build a new manufacturing and maintenance sector to support sustainable change. But is there the will, or the courage to make the necessary investment?

In the workplace, lockdown has proved that a great many jobs can be delivered remotely without any negative impact on productivity. We’ve seen an investment in technology to support and enable remote working, and many people are enjoying a more flexible approach which is supporting great improvements in their work life balance. However, there is no doubt that are missing the social interaction associated with the workplace, and the opportunities for collaborative working. Many employers are speaking openly of a ‘new normal’ which will include a blend of both remote and office based working, but to really realise the benefits of this, offices spaces need to be designed to maximise collaboration and engagement during time spent on site. Are employers ready to invest, not just in technology but also in real estate that will secure step change in the way that we work? 

As we emerge from the crisis of COVID-19, it would be quite natural to take a cautious approach to recovery, and to seek a gradual return to our previous way of life. However, if we can drive a more courageous approach, there is the potential to realise a step change in so many areas of our lives, and to secure a better future for ourselves and for future generations.

So let’s be bold and commit to a better future, as a tribute to those who have worked so hard to get us through this crisis, and to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

Louise Ward is the health, safety and environment director at Siemens. For more information visit,