Spring forward, fall back. British summer time begins at 01:00 on Sunday, March 29 when the clocks go forward an hour. But, really, who cares? In the grip of a coronavirus lockdown, with day-to-day life reduced to hunkering down at home to save lives and reduce pressure on the NHS, time has started to lose meaning.
When you wake up on Sunday, you might not even realise it’s Sunday. Or the weekend. On Monday morning, when you stumble into your kitchen and see the oven clock reads 08:00, you can go back to bed for another hour. Except you can’t, because it’s actually 09:00. The oven clock hasn’t updated and you’re now late for work. Except you’re not, because you can work from bed. Result.
What’s the point of time, after all, when each day is an excruciating repeat of the one that preceded it, stuck on a loop of endless Zoom calls and Houseparty drinking sessions? Or to put it another way: the clocks changing means even less than it has before. At least the clocks jumping forward an hour takes us (artificially) one hour closer to the end of lockdown.
But, soon enough, that horological delight will be taken away from us. Soon, the clocks will stop changing once and for all. Last March, the European Parliament voted to scrap the twice-a-year change from either March or October 2021. At this point, member states will have to choose whether to remain on permanent summer time or permanent winter time.
It remains to be seen if the UK will fall in line and join the clock change exodus. Now that the UK has left the European Union, it is free to continue using daylight saving time if it wants, though this would cause significant headaches on the island of Ireland, where Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could end up in different timezones, despite being right next to one another.
As such, it’s incredibly likely that the UK will follow what the European Union does, at least on this occasion. And that throws up some interesting possibilities. At present, the EU is spread across three time zones. The UK, Ireland and Portugal are all on Greenwich Mean Time, or UTC, while 17 countries in western and central Europe are on Central European Time (UTC+1), while much of eastern Europe is on the equally imaginatively named Eastern European Time (UTC+2). And, at present, nearly every country in Europe observes daylight saving time.
As the EU directive makes clear, individual member states will soon be able to choose which side of the line they jump to: permanent winter time or permanent summer time. As a result Spain, which has been in the ‘wrong’ time zone since 1940, could shift to be permanently in the same time zone as its neighbour Portugal, as well as Ireland and the UK. The same could also happen in France, though this is less likely. As with Spain, which shifted to the same timezone as Germany during the Second World War, much of France was originally on the same time as the UK but a temporary shift to German time was eventually made permanent.
Based purely on longitude, current time zones across Europe are a bit of a mess. As with France and Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands should also be on UTC based on their longitude. But the hard logic of solar time will likely lose out when put up against the political and economic importance of time differences across borders – even if there’s a substantial body of evidence suggesting being on the ‘wrong’ time zone can have big repercussions on people’s health and productivity.
Once the coronavirus pandemic is under better control, such discussions will become far more urgent. In 2021, a country deciding to go into permanent summer or winter time could create major economic and social fallout – and even change how closely countries are aligned. Case in point: Iceland, which despite being tucked away at the very western edge of Europe observes UTC year-round, bringing it closer to its geographically distant neighbours. Daylight be damned, sometimes friends are more important.
An even more dramatic version of this kind of decision was made by the tiny South Pacific nation of Samoa, which, in December 2011, moved itself across the international date line, effectively jumping forward an entire day and erasing December 30, 2011 from its calendar. The same move was made by neighbouring Tokelau. The switch moved Samoans closer to Australia and New Zealand, where more than 200,000 expatriate Samoans now live.
Back in Europe, the impending abandonment of daylight saving time seems prosaic by comparison. But despite a few consenting voices – one former Tory MEP accused the European Commission of acting like “time lords” – the change does have widespread support. In 2018, the Commission ran a public consultation which received 4.6 million responses from all 28 EU member states. In total, 84 per cent of citizens were in favour of putting an end to bi-annual clock changes. So make the most of the twice-yearly tradition while it lasts – if you even notice it, that is.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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