The worry is deserted city centres. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey told Tory MPs on Wednesday that he had been driving to his office every day since lockdown was imposed and is shocked by how empty London still feels. He said workers must go back to their offices to support cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that depend on their custom.
Many shops and cafes in areas of London that rely on office workers are yet to reopen, with some that have decided to brave it bringing in less than £100 a day. Sandwich and coffee chain Pret a Manger has suffered significant losses in the coronavirus crisis with sales down by 74pc, triggering plans to permanently shut 30 shops.
Richard Lim, who runs consultancy Retail Economics, says that while large shopping centres such as Westfield have the “gravitational pull of being a day out”, hundreds of high streets and shopping malls across Britain are entirely dependent on office workers popping in on their lunch breaks or daily commute.
“One of the areas that stands out is Canary Wharf. It’s got a huge retail proposition, a load of bars, restaurants, lots of retailers there, and the rent and the leases are priced and predicated on the fact there’s a huge churn of office workers in that particular location,” he says. “The success of some locations like Canary Wharf are completely dependent on people going back to work.”
Before the coronavirus crisis Lim estimates the UK had about 20pc too much retail space that would be reduced over the next decade – a trend that will now speed up. Concerns about a second virus wave and fears workers will not be prepared to take the risk of returning to the office means many companies that were booming before Covid-19 now face a threat to their existence.
After kitting out spare rooms and kitchen tables with company-funded monitors and keyboards, and successfully working from home for months, many see no reason to go back to their old ways. The office will not be what it used to be when they go back either – new additions include thermal imaging cameras, temperature checks, one-way corridors and empty desks to stop colleagues from getting too close.
Fears about using public transport are also a major issue for city centres. Bailey has told ministers that train usage remains below 20pc of capacity, urging them to restore confidence in using public transport to encourage people back to work. He warned that the country will be “in a recession for a long time” if his advice is ignored.