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Thursday, Oct 22, 2020

'It’s a ghost town': City of London market reacts to Covid slump

Leadenhall hit hard by Boris Johnson’s U-turn on encouraging workers back to their desks
Ten days after the government halted its back-to-the-office drive in England, sparse lunchtime scenes in London’s historic financial district indicate that employees have embraced the renewed instruction to work from home.

A rain-soaked and windswept Friday had drawn few visitors to the shops, restaurants and pubs at the capital’s Leadenhall market, close to the Bank of England, the Gherkin skyscraper and the insurance market Lloyd’s of London.

In pre-Covid times at this time of the working week, the market would have been “heaving, absolutely rammed”, said one customer having a drink at a table outside the New Moon pub, who declined to give his name.

A worker usually based in the area, he was visiting the City for the first time since March and was surprised to see the market so quiet, where many of the grab-and-go lunch outlets including Pret a Manger and Leon have not reopened since lockdown.

“It’s a ghost town,” said Suzie Griffin, owner of Nicholson & Griffin hairdressers located at one of the market’s entrances. “Yesterday we only did two haircuts all day.”

She said trade had been slowly picking up in September at the salon and the three other branches run by her husband and herself in the City and the Canary Wharf financial district, until Boris Johnson recommended a return to homeworking on 22 September.

“I could feel business coming back a bit, then the next day it dropped off a cliff,” Griffin said.

Daphne Thomas opened the doors of her Leadenhall market cake shop, Aux Merveilleux de Fred, for the first time on 15 September and noticed a change soon after advice on work changed. The market was noticeably busier before 22 September she said. “Boris Johnson spoke on the Tuesday. We didn’t notice a change on the Wednesday and Thursday, but we did the next week. People got organised and decided to leave work and stay home,” she added.

A shop assistant at another food outlet in the market, who didn’t want to give her name, said trade had been quieter following the PM’s announcement.

A string of financial firms including Barclays, PwC and Goldman Sachs, put the brakes on their office return plans in England following the government’s U-turn on encouraging workers back to their desks. Prior to the 22 September change, ministers had said that from 1 August employers in England could decide whether staff could return to the office, which had given them more leeway than the previous advice which was to work from home where possible.

The reversion to previous advice on homeworking sparked an immediate drop in commuting, according to data from the Office for National Statistics released this week. In the week following Boris Johnson’s intervention, 59% of UK workers travelled on their usual commute, compared with 64% the previous week.

Road traffic across the UK declined by about 3%-4% in the six days after the 22 September announcement compared with the previous week, according to he Department for Transport. Rail industry sources said they were experiencing a “noticeable decrease” in passenger journeys after numbers had climbed to more than 40% of pre-pandemic levels daily at the start of the month.

Statistical evidence of a drop-off in commuting is a blow to businesses such as Griffin’s, amid signs that people were drifting back to their desks in ever greater numbers. The return to the office had begun to gather pace in early September, according to data collected by the Alphawise research unit of US bank Morgan Stanley.

It showed that prior to the prime minister’s announcement, almost half (45%) of British staff had gone back to their workplace, compared with 37% in August and 34% in July. Before the pandemic, about 500,000 people travelled to work in the Square Mile financial district, the vast majority of them commuting on public transport.

The loss of office workers and tourists has hit hospitality and retail businesses in the City hard.

“Hibernating through the winter is not an option for our economy,” warned Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the Square Mile’s governing body and landlord of Leadenhall market. “We are building up an economic crisis which has the potential to impact more people than the health one. It is vital that we protect livelihoods as well as lives.”
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