The new normal

The pandemic lockdowns transformed millions of people’s lives across the UK. Three years on, what lasting impact have they had for workers and businesses?

On the evening of 23 March 2020, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered an escalation in the UK’s response to coronavirus, issuing the country’s first lockdown measures. From the following day, strict limitations were placed on what the British public could do and all non-essential shops and businesses in the hospitality sector were ordered to close.

The lockdown restrictions – which were repeated twice more over the following year – brought massive disruptions to both individuals and businesses.  The ramifications for how we spent our money, where we worked and how often we travelled are in many cases, still being felt. 

Three years on, some of these changes have left a lasting impression, while others have vanished without a trace. Were the lockdowns really the start of the new normal or have we returned to our old ways?

Living and working

One of the most significant disruptions for individuals and businesses was the transition to remote working. Prior to the pandemic, only one in eight workers reported working from home, according to Office for National Statistics figures. 

However, remote working figures surged during the first lockdown period, when almost half (49%) of working adults were forced to transform their homes into an office space. Naturally, the numbers of those travelling to work trended in the opposite direction.

While the percentage of commuters has increased since the end of the third lockdown, levels of home working have fluctuated, with no clear upward or downward trend. It seems hybrid working could be here to stay.

The rail industry took a significant hit, as the number of passenger journeys dramatically dropped from 392 million in the fourth financial quarter of 2019-20, to 35 million during the first lockdown.

Despite some growth, the rail sector has struggled to recover since the pandemic restrictions were lifted. The industry has been blighted by industrial action and has been impacted by the shift to hybrid working, which caused commuter numbers to decline. As a consequence, the current number of passenger journeys remains around 80% of the pre-pandemic peak. 

Contrary to many observer’s predictions, the housing market saw a surge in prices through 2021. The rise of hybrid work led to many city workers seeking out space in the suburbs, while demand in the formerly red-hot London market stayed flat.

It was not to last. From 2022, the market cooled dramatically as interest rates rose and inflation spiralled. However, apartments still appear out of favour: as of last June, flats cost 16% less across England and Wales and 9.4% less in London compared to the previous year.


With all non-essential retail forced to shut its doors, consumers turned to ecommerce to fulfil their shopping needs. The ensuing online retail boom saw internet purchases jump to a peak in between the second and third national lockdowns, when 37.8% of all retail sales were made online.

But as retail reopened, the figures trended back towards the pre-Covid norm. This had disastrous consequences for a number of lockdown’s digital darlings, who have since seen share prices plummet, or in the case of, gone bust.

The ecommerce boom and bust has not been true for all sectors; the grocery industry is still experiencing ecommerce growth. Customers appear to have become accustomed to getting their food orders delivered, since orders grew 3.9 percentage points to reach 11% of total grocery chain sales in the UK in 2020 – the year of the first lockdown measures.

Data analytics firm Ascential expects this trend to continue, predicting that 13.2% of all edible grocery purchases will be made via ecommerce by 2026.

Consumer spending dipped during 2020 by £23 m to a total of £535.7m. However, it remained stronger than many expected and returned back to normal levels just a year later, with many sectors seeing a dramatic rebound in consumption thanks to pent-up demand from people trapped indoors for much of the previous year.

2020 was also notable for the record percentage of disposable income that was diverted away from consumption. The economic impact of Covid was unequally shared: those who could work from home accumulated savings as their cash could not be spent on holidays, restaurants or out-of-home entertainment. 


One industry all-but-decimated by the pandemic was air travel. As countries shut their borders, flight numbers dropped more than 50% during 2020. It led to an estimated $370 billion loss in global revenue. Passengers have been slow to return. Thanks to ongoing restrictions in many nations, including China, there were around 5 million fewer flights in 2022 than pre-pandemic. That was added to by widespread disruption as airports, such as London Heathrow, struggled to cope with returning holidaymakers after laying off thousands of staff during the first lockdown. 

Netflix, Disney+ and other on-demand streaming platforms were some of the pandemic’s biggest winners – at least at first. The number of households subscribed to at least one service surged by 4.5 million in the year following the first lockdown. But consumer interest has since levelled off, with total figures hovering just above 19 million throughout 2022. Netflix is expected to lose 700,000 UK subscribers in the next two years as Brits cut back on non-essential spending.