London businesses count cost as workers avoid office

05 September 2020
London businesses count cost as workers avoid office
The health crisis has left vast swathes of central London almost deserted -- the reduced footfall leaving businesses to count the cost (Photo: AFP)

Nestled between central London's rows of office blocks, eateries once packed with customers grabbing lunch or a morning coffee are counting the cost as the coronavirus keeps workers at home.

"The City is not going to go back to normal," said Berat, manager at Turkish restaurant Haz close to St Paul's Cathedral, which before Covid-19 was thronged with lunchtime crowds.

"People saw they can work from home... we can't serve someone from home," Berat told AFP as he greeted a handful of customers.

He says that Haz has only 15 percent of its usual custom, although it expects the figure to rise to 30 percent next month as companies increasingly ask staff to return to the office, at least on a part-time basis.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative government are using the end of the summer holidays and reopening of schools to encourage Britons to return to the office.

While no longer ghostly as was the case when Britain was in lockdown for around three months from late March, the roads around central London remain largely free of commuters.

"It's very calm," lamented one sandwich seller opposite St Pauls, losing out also from a lack of tourists.

At a neighbouring office block, the manager estimates that only 40 percent of companies renting space have returned, though she too expects an increase in the coming months.

According to Transport for London, traffic on the capital's underground railway network is 70 percent below its level before lockdown.

"This will continue to be a period of change, with new ways of working needed to respond to Covid-19," concluded this week Bank of England official Alex Brazier.

- Urban exodus –

Meanwhile, with a majority of office workers continuing to do their jobs remotely, recent data has shown a jump in the number of people seeking to move out of the capital and into less urban areas.

Oil giant BP, which is slashing 10,000 jobs after the pandemic crushed energy demand and prices, is actively encouraging non-frontline staff to work from home, while it is reportedly planning to leave its historic London headquarters.

Barclays bank says that only a small number of its 80,000 staff worldwide have returned to office working.

"Any return will be phased and gradual and it goes without saying that the health and safety of our colleagues, customers and clients is a priority in this regard," said a spokeswoman.

The picture is similar at Lloyds bank, where 50,000 of its 60,000 staff are working remotely, while HSBC says its office occupancy is down to just one-fifth.

Natwest bank is telling staff to work from home until next year, while Google's London staff can until at least July 2021.

"With many office blocks still empty and much of the public avoiding public transport, footfall is not returning to towns and city centres and this is having a devastating effect on the local economies in these areas," said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

British coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger last week said it was cutting 2,800 jobs as a result of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Rival Costa Coffee on Thursday announced 1,650 job losses.