Is it time to get rid of British Summer Time?

london in summer palace of westminster big ben

Having just passed the Summer Equinox, we’re experiencing all the benefits and drawbacks of extremely long days. Yet the only reason it gets light so early is that we continue to put our clocks forward – a change that can interrupt our circadian rhythms, and cause up to three weeks of insomnia. Turning the clocks back is equally bad for our health, although it probably doesn’t like it at the time.

Increasingly, people are suggesting that the idea of losing and gaining an hour each year – known as Daylight Savings Time – is an anachronism. The concept first introduced for farmers in the First World War is now outdated, it’s said, and serves no real purpose in an age of artificial light and caffeinated drinks. So why do we persist with it – and why should we change now?

 

What is Daylight Savings Time and when did it start?

Daylight Savings Time (DST) – perhaps better known here as British Summer Time (BST) – was an idea dreamt up in New Zealand in the late 19th century, and implemented for the first time in Germany. Despite having been first introduced as a bill in the British Parliament in 1908, it was the Germans who first used DST in a bid to conserve energy during the First World War. The UK and US both quickly followed suit, and the change went on to become permanent.

The core concept behind DST is that in countries between the equator and the poles, the length of the days tends to change significantly between seasons. As a result, moving the clocks forward during the summer months means that we take advantage of the longer days, rising when it’s slightly darker and enjoying the lighter evenings. In the winter, the reverse is true – we rise when it’s slightly lighter, and settle into darker evenings.

Of course, this isn’t true everywhere. Some countries near to or far from the equator experience extremely long or short days, where an hour’s difference wouldn’t change anything. Other countries (and certain US states) simply choose not to observe DST, dealing with the changes as they come. Much also depends on the timezone a country is in, which may be elective or enforced, as is currently the case in the European Union.

 

Why do people want to get rid of DST?

One of the primary reasons is (you guessed it!) safety. Putting the clocks forward is associated with a number of health problems due to the interruption to our circadian rhythms. This can not only lead to less sleep on that particular day – potentially causing accidents – but can disrupt our sleep schedule for weeks to come, and has been associated with a rise in heart attacks.

The supposed benefits of DST have also been widely questioned. The idea that it saves energy has been broadly disproven in various studies, with some concluding that we actually use more energy due to DST than we would otherwise. While some suggest that lighter mornings might be making travel to work and school safer, this is also questionable — and it’s becoming increasingly trendy to argue that school days should start later anyway.

Opposition to British Summer Time also comes from farmers, who dislike the impact it has on their schedules. Livestock require feeding and milking at the same time, so when the clocks change, schedules have to be set back. And while there’s nothing to stop a family-run farm from getting up super early, it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to hire people to do the same. 

 

What system should we switch to?

You might think that ending the tyranny of Daylight Savings Time would be straightforward. Just get rid of it and don’t change the time anymore, right? Well, that is one option – but it’s not the only option. A change to the habits we’ve held for a hundred years is an opportunity to upset the apple cart, and try something completely different.

The UK is far from the first place to consider making a change, either. Florida and Washington State have both passed laws to end DST, while the European Union has just voted to give member countries control over their implementation of both DST and time zones. Here are the three leading proposals on how the UK could get with the times.

 

  •  Switch to GMT permanently

Switching to GMT permanently would apply the time we use through the winter months across the entire year. In some ways, this is the most sensible and least complicated option – everyone is familiar with GMT, and using GMT as standard would be a return to the way we measured time before the First World War.

This would give us more light on summer and winter mornings, making it easier to get up and get motivated. However, the evenings would be darker in the summer months, meaning we’d have less time to enjoy outdoor sports, barbeques and other activities – some of the great benefits of the current system. We’d also be no closer to neighbouring countries in terms of time zones, which has a negative impact on businesses.

 

  • Switch to BST permanently (GMT +1)

Switching to British Summer Time permanently would mean that the clocks would go forward by one hour for the whole year. In other words, each day would start an hour earlier, regardless of the season. This would mean brighter evenings and more daylight hours for the whole year, but darker mornings.

Nothing would change during the summer, while winter evenings would be longer, allowing you to do more after work. However, it would make it even tougher to get up and motivated on pitch-black winter mornings, and potentially more dangerous to travel to work and school (although many also argue that school should start later!).

This extra hour would mean that late afternoons at school and work would still be relatively bright, potentially improving productivity during that afternoon slump. Exposure to natural light is also closely linked to mental health problems, and so a permanent switch to British Summer Time could reduce the impact of seasonal affective disorder (link), which causes and exacerbates depression during the winter months. 

It would also bring the UK in line with its European neighbours for most of the year, and an hour closer to Asian time zones. This would help businesses to work across borders, and make trading easier in the increasingly important Asian markets.

 

  • Switch to CET (GMT +1) / CEST (GMT +2)

A third option is to switch the UK to Central European Time (CST) and Central European Summer Time (CEST), which are equivalent to GMT +1 in the winter months and GMT +2 in the summer months. This would bring us in line with countries like Spain and France, who sit within the same meridian line as the UK, but are currently an hour ahead of us. 

Practically speaking, it would mean much darker mornings and much brighter and longer evenings throughout the year, with all the positives and negatives that brings. Businesses would also appreciate this change, as it would bring us in line with other European nations for the entire year, making it easier to trade and work with teams across the continent.

However, there’s a chance that other European nations may be about to eliminate DST, after the EU handed over control of time zones to member nations. This would remove the major benefit of synchronising businesses across the continent, but would still bring us much closer to time zones in Asia and Australia.

While we hope that breakdown was clear enough, Daylight Savings Time can be a complicated issue, making it tempting to keep things the way they are. If the current system is conclusively proved to have no benefits and several costs, though, you may want to prepare yourself for permanent summertime – even if it doesn’t bring permanent sunshine with it.