It’s no use shouting ‘back to work’ when Britain’s industries are in a jobs meltdown 

“Cries of “back to work!” sound as moronic as the old Tory exhortation to get on your bike and look for a job – not a meaningful answer to an unprecedented emergency, but yet another indication that the gap between rhetoric and reality is now so huge that it is starting to look downright absurd.”

I recently spent a weekday afternoon in the centre of Bristol, chasing the small comforts of retail therapy, and trying to do my bit for a few of my favourite shops. The experience was dreamlike, and unsettling: businesses smattered with hazard tape, half-deserted streets, and a rush hour that seemed to amount to little more than a few momentary traffic jams. Most of the city’s office workers, it seemed, were either furloughed or working at home. Normality – whatever that is – was nowhere to be seen; perhaps the most forlorn sight was that of empty buses adorned with faded adverts for films that came out before the pandemic.

The same day, alluding to both Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme and the near silence of our business districts, the front page of the Daily Mail featured the headline “We’ve had our lunch, now let’s get back to work!”. Returning to workplaces in the midst of a possible second wave is a self-evidently dire prospect; big companies from Google to Mastercard have recently told their employees they can remain at home. But here was another example of the idea – indicative of the reflexive Tory belief that we are at heart a nation of idlers, and lately voiced by such fans of the work ethic as Iain Duncan Smith and Kirstie Allsopp – that we might be able to return to the pre-Covid world by a sheer act of collective will.

The truth, of course, is that making that argument in the midst of such a grave crisis is not just cruel and condescending, but a denial of huge changes to working lives that might turn out to be a lasting social shift. Besides, how can you report for work if your job has gone? As the Bank of England projects a fall in GDP of nearly 10%, the list of high street names who are either shedding staff, or warning that they soon will, now extends into the distance: WH Smith, Pizza Express, Dixons Carphone, Boots, Pret a Manger. In the first two days of this month, 4,500 jobs were cut by major British employers.

Independent businesses, too, are staring into the void: I know of cafe proprietors who reckon they are doing no more than 25% of their pre-Covid trade, and pub owners who say that a combination of staffing costs and dismal customer numbers means that they will soon have to give up.

There is another aspect of our mounting jobs crisis that is still overlooked. Contrary to the idea that we are now a nation of shoppers and service industries, Britain still has a manufacturing sector, a lot of it located beyond our major cities, and a rare source of skilled, well-paid employment. And here, the news is not only just as depressing, but replete with the sense of a country at risk of losing something whose absence will make the future even more perilous. Jobs in aerospace, automotive production and much more besides are disappearing at speed; both management and unions are crying out for dedicated help from the government, apparently in vain.

Between its retailing and manufacturing wings, the UK car industry is reckoned to have already lost 11,000 jobs. Given that the prime minister affects a fondness for buses, he may or may not be aware that Alexander Dennis, a manufacturer of double-deckers whose key site is in Falkirk, are set to cut hundreds of staff. Given the awful state of demand for air travel, in such places as Derby, the south Wales valleys, the parts of north Wales just beyond Chester and the industrial cluster that sits on the northern edge of Bristol, aerospace is in equally dire straits. Airbus intends to shed 1,700 British jobs; the figure for Rolls-Royce is 3,000.

The fates of troubled workplaces are closely linked to those of scores of smaller businesses – from the makers of all-important parts, to hotels and caterers. Just about all of the key firms, moreover, are unionised, with cultures far from the kind of flimsy, insecure practices increasingly common in other parts of the economy. Perhaps the most vivid example is the cluster of aerospace factories in Northern Ireland, which extends from the transport manufacturing giant Bombardier to two major producers of aeroplane seats. Prior to March, Brexit was these businesses’ biggest worry; now, what remains of 2020 will fuse those concerns with the misery and anxiety of immediate job losses.

Even if many jobs are shed via voluntary redundancy schemes, that still means a huge loss of opportunity for future generations. Besides, many of the people involved say they expect an initial round of job losses to be followed by more. And in places that have already been through 40 years of deindustrialisation, what will replace the work that is lost? People may just about be able to find work as security guards, Amazon “associates” and delivery drivers, but that is no foundation for the future.

Even if most of the businesses in question are still based on carbon-intensive technologies, if Britain is to get anywhere near a Green New Deal, their workers’ skills will be indispensable, particularly if these companies are to be made more environmentally sustainable. You can’t engineer a greener future if there are no engineers around to do it.

By way of parrying our burgeoning economic disaster, the government has its across-the-board job retention scheme, but after the tapered phase that began at the end of July, it will soon come to a close.

Last month, the government repromoted its plan to give £200m in grants to boost research and development to make air travel “safer and greener”; manufacturers have also drawn on state-backed loans and help with exports. But all this pales in comparison to what is happening elsewhere. France has launched a €15bn (£13.5bn) support plan for its aerospace industry, exchanging government help for faster progress towards greener aviation; Germany has established a €50bn industrial fund aimed at “climate change, innovation and digitisation”.

Both countries, moreover, have systems in place that will continue subsidising short-time working to protect jobs – something the Labour party is now loudly proposing, but the Johnson government still refuses to do.

The prime minister and his allies still profess to be driven by the idea of “levelling up” the parts of the country that are still defined by the economic disasters and Conservative cruelties of the past. But whatever he says is increasingly drowned out by the sound of doors closing and redundancy payments dropping into bank accounts. Between thinly populated town and city centres and factories frantically cutting back their payrolls, we are now in a watershed moment that will decide our economic future, and whether we will retain the industrial strength necessary for a green future, and at least reduce the damage caused by our exit from Europe.

Cries of “back to work!” sound as moronic as the old Tory exhortation to get on your bike and look for a job – not a meaningful answer to an unprecedented emergency, but yet another indication that the gap between rhetoric and reality is now so huge that it is starting to look downright absurd.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist