Cities suffer as only a sixth return to offices

An empty St James's Park in central London, where few have returned to offices
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/PA Images

Only a sixth of workers have returned to offices in cities – despite strong hints from the government that employees should begin to return to work.

According to data from the Centre for Cities, footfall in UK cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.

On 1 August, the government changed its coronavirus guidance from “work from home” where possible to return to work where it is safe to do so – yet many employers have chosen to continue remote working operations.

In central London and Manchester, weekday footfall increased by just one percentage point in the first two weeks of August, compared to the first two weeks of July. In Birmingham City Centre the number of workers entering the city fell over the same period.

Seaside towns such as Blackpool and Bournemouth enjoyed high footfall at similar levels to pre-lockdown, according to the research, as people enjoyed the government’s Eat Out to Help Out incentive scheme.

London mayor Sadiq Khan told Sky News, which commissioned the research, that many businesses in the capital faced “an existential threat” and required targeted government support to avoid mass unemployment.

He described London as potentially facing a “bagel-like” recovery where businesses in suburbs enjoyed more activity but those supplying workers in central London faced closure.

He said: “Those parts of outer London which have done really well because people are shopping locally will be doing okay, but central London becomes a ghost town, where there’s tumbleweed in many parts of London. So dry cleaners, bars, restaurants, sandwich bars will be going bust.”

“Shops, restaurants and pubs face an uncertain future while office workers remain at home,” said Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter.

“So, in the absence of a big increase in people returning to the office, the government must set out how it will support the people working in city centre retail and hospitality who could well find themselves out of a job by Christmas.”

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