In this series, members of the Cerno team reflect on the crisis and provide detail on their work and domestic lives.

For our first interview, we caught up with James Spence, Managing Partner and Portfolio Manager, to hear how he has been coping and adapting to life during this time:

Have your close connections been affected by the disease?

A close friend of mine died on 29th March in the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. We’re of the same age and had similar careers since being part of the 1986 intake at Coopers & Lybrand. He had a mordant sense of humour, telling people on the week of his COVID-19 test it was the only positive thing that happened to him all week. He was very sick by that time. I will miss him.

What do you think are the longer-term consequences for the UK/Global societies?

I’m ambivalent on this. One the one hand, health care provision will be looked at critically and the obvious gaps between the have and have nots (within each society and between nations) will draw more compassionate responses from those already so minded. On the other hand, one of the underestimated functions of human memory is forgetting – it’s a form of washing to prevent ingrained mental distress, so we tend to forget. I have many hopes – I just don’t think many of them will be met.

How have people around you coped with the necessary changes and adaptions?

It’s interesting to observe reactions and adaptions. It’s been like a train coming at us, looks slow at first and then it speeds up. A group of people in the office got into the epidemiology early, which had plenty going for it intellectually, less so when the threats became more personal. Everybody took a bit of time to understand that plans would have to change drastically: travel, office, meetings, events. It wasn’t obvious to many and that sense was doubtless bolstered by the initial laissez faire approach of the UK government. One piece of good news is that political bluster is being found out, all over the world.

How has contingency planning gone?

We moved from split team working to full remote working on 16th March. It’s gone well. In a small firm, you can’t look to others to determine things. It reminds me of a line in Zero Dark Thirty when Mark Strong says to the CIA operatives “There’s nobody else, hidden away on some other floor”. The collaboration has been good and a special mention should be made of Adam Hawkins who runs our IT infrastructure. He has been supporting everybody and made a lot of good decisions.

How have your relations with colleagues had to adapt?

The cornerstone of our day is a morning conference call with everybody based an agenda that everybody can add to. Then, various discussions take place in different for a and groups. We’re more assiduous in attending scheduled meetings – now online. Of course, nobody is on holiday.

What technology has proved most useful?

Undoubtedly Microsoft Teams, it’s excellent. I used to dislike Microsoft as a company and a culture and what it represented but I’ve come around. On this we can have very good quality voice calls, video and chat in different configurations. It matches up well with our IT configuration as we had adopted a hybrid cloud approach a couple of years ago. I have one colleague who is 100% video calling, others who have placed an Elastoplast over their laptop cameras. As a consequence, most of us are watching his hair grow and, when he gets his camera placement out, that extends to the hairs in his nostrils. I know a lot of people like Zoom but I find aspects of it unnatural. It’s a bit like watching poor amateur theatricals, especially the efforts made by non-speakers in controlling their bodies. Generally best done clothed, of course.

What’s the smartest thing you have heard from a scientist in this crisis?

I’ll mention two. On 12th February, Professor Neil Ferguson said on R4’s Today programme “I think we’re in the early phases of a global pandemic.” That was a relatively early and correct call. More recently Professor Michael Osterholm said on a call on 3rd April “All models are wrong.” I’m afraid he’s correct too.

Are you taking in more news?

I’ve added one more newspaper to my daily read: The New York Times (online edition available for 75p/week). As I’m in front of news all day long, I don’t watch TV news in the evenings. I also have resumed reading the South China Morning Post as Hong Kong has embedded coronavirus expertise as a result of going through SARS in 2002-03.

What do you miss about office life?

On conference calls, it’s not possible for people to speak at once, which is a very normal feature of face-to-face interactions. Contributions can be a bit uneven and you can’t necessarily tell who has a point to make and who not. In a room together, that can be sensed. Most people go on mute to dull the sounds of warring relatives or coffee machines and the mute/unmute protocol takes practice.

On a more personal note, when I don’t have a commitment, I eat lunch at Tibits on Heddon Street. It’s vegetarian but I’m not. It’s obviously closed for now.

What is a young person’s point of view?

My children, aged 9 and 7, tell me they prefer going to school rather than home schooling. I can see why. Interestingly, they don’t miss the shops – other than Claire’s: that emporium of squish and slime.

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