The clocks change tonight – but it won’t happen for much longer

Getty Images / Run Zebra Run / WIRED

Plans to abolish clock changes across the European Union in 2021 have been put on hold as a result of the pandemic. In March 2019 the European Parliament approved a proposal stating that seasonal clock changes – spring forward, fall back – would become a thing of the past from next year, but a spokesperson for the Council of the European Union has confirmed that the move is not currently on the agenda.
The spokesperson says that it is very unlikely that the current German presidency of the council will raise the issue again before its term ends in December. It is also unlikely that Portugal or Slovenia, which hold the presidency in 2021, will put seasonal clock changes back on the agenda anytime soon.


That means that the UK will still switch back to GMT at 02:00 on Sunday, October 25. And it will keep switching between GMT and BST for some time yet. Seasonal clock changes will also still take place across Europe, with every member state making the jump at the same time to keep in sync. That’s good news for early risers, but bad news for anyone living in an area where you can’t mix with other households indoors – the switch back to GMT in the UK will mean it will soon get dark well before 5pm.
It might be a slow process, but the end of daylight savings in Europe is still likely to happen – even if it is delayed by a year or two. The 2021 deadline had been proposed back in 2018, but was never committed to by diplomats despite the proposals securing widespread approval by the European Parliament. In December 2019, when abolishing seasonal clock changes was last raised at a European Council meeting, diplomats agreed that member states needed more time to plan and prepare for such a complex switch.
If and when it does happen – and it remains more a question of when than if – the continent-wide shift will require a lot of coordination. And that’s because each and every country has a big decision to make: whether to stay on summer or winter time forever. This might cause quite a bit of confusion. Germany, for example, could decide to shift permanently to summer time but neighbouring Poland might pick winter time. As a result, two countries that previously inhabited the same time zone would drift an hour apart.
Such decisions can have a big impact. Despite being on the very western edge of Europe, Iceland observes UTC year-round, bringing it closer to its distant neighbours. Further afield, the Pacific island nation of Samoa moved itself across the international date line in December 2011, jumping forward an entire day and erasing December 30, 2011 from its calendar. Neighbouring Tokelau made the same jump. The switch moved Samoans closer to Australia and New Zealand, where more than 200,000 expatriates now live.


But, for now, such issues are far from a priority. No further progress has been made on ditching seasonal clock changes across the EU since the issue was last raised in December of 2019. With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, the complicated business of unpicking Europe’s time zones is unlikely to be put back on the agenda in 2021.
Just as the pandemic has put the brakes on Europe-wide action, some have called for a temporary pause on daylight savings as a result of the pandemic. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which, as the name suggests, campaigns for changes in legislation to reduce accidents, has floated the idea of ditching daylight savings in the UK to give struggling businesses a little extra help.
In Ireland, the co-leader of the Social Democrats, Róisín Shortall, has also proposed ditching the switch back to GMT as a one-off measure to help with the strain caused by the pandemic. An Irish government spokesperson said this would not be happening and that it would be switching back to GMT as normal on October 25.
The clamour to do away with seasonal clock changes in the European Union is based on some solid science. A 2012 study from the University of Alabama found that when the clocks move forward in March that there is a ten per cent increase in the risk of having a heart attack. It isn’t clear why this is the case, but it could be down to sleep deprivation and other biological responses to the slight change in time zone.


Europe’s time zones are also a bit of a mess. Spain, which has been in the ‘wrong’ time zone since 1940 when General Franco moved it to be on the same time as Nazi Germany, could shift to be permanently in the same time zone as its neighbour Portugal, as well as Ireland and the UK.
As a result of Franco’s move, the entire of Spain has inadvertently been taking part in a decades-long experiment into sleep deprivation with Spaniards on average sleeping about 53 minutes less than the European average. Spanish people wake up at the wrong time, eat meals at the wrong time and go to bed at the wrong time.
And it’s not just Spain. The same could also happen in France, though this is less likely. Much of France was originally on the same time as the UK but a temporary shift to German time during the Second World War was eventually made permanent. As with France and Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands should also be on UTC, not CET, based on their longitude.
The very notion of seasonal clock changes is a thoroughly modern phenomenon – and it has more to do with saving energy than making people healthier or more productive. The idea first came up during the First World War when the German Empire turned the clocks ahead by one hour in April 1916 to preserve energy use from artificial lighting. Less energy used on lighting homes and businesses, it was argued, meant more energy for winning the war.
The UK and France soon followed and the idea has taken hold in Europe and much of North America ever since, but is almost unheard of in Oceania, the Middle East and South America and not used at all in Africa or east Asia. The EU only introduced legislation to unify the practice of seasonal clock changes across the continent in 1996. A couple of decades on, with increased use of renewable energy and more energy-efficient products, the case for using seasonal clock changes to save energy is harder to make.
While Europe might be well on its way to ditching seasonal clock changes, it remains to be seen if post-Brexit Britain will fall in line. 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 major 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.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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