The number of people going back to work in offices has flatlined in the past two months despite the government push to get more workers into cities to protect Britain’s biggest urban economies from collapse.
According to analysis of mobile phone tracking data by the Centre for Cities thinktank, worker footfall across 63 of the UK’s largest town and city centres was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels at the end of June, remained at 17% at the start of August and was still at 17% in the last full week of the month.
Worker footfall was down most in Oxford, Leeds and London. Numbers had risen most in smaller cities and large towns such as Mansfield, Basildon and Newport but still remained less than half the normal levels.
In July Boris Johnson urged companies to return staff to offices from the start of August to help reboot the British economy from the deepest recession on record. But many of Britain’s biggest firms have defied the plea. Ministers have warned that home workers could be vulnerable to being sacked.
Despite lockdown measures being relaxed, as much as 39% of the UK workforce continues to work remotely, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, there are significant variations by sector depending on the ease of home-working. As many as three-quarters of IT and professional workers who would usually occupy city-centre offices remain working from home, compared with 14% of staff in health and social care and a fifth in construction and manufacturing.
This month one of the Bank of England’s most senior officials, Alex Brazier, poured cold water on the drive to get workers back to offices, saying it was impossible to use densely packed city offices while adhering to Covid-safe guidelines. Concerns over rising infections, transport capacity and childcare while schools have been closed have also slowed the return to work.
The number of workers in city centres may rise in the coming weeks now that schools have reopened and as some firms bring staff back. The government is pushing to return civil servants to offices by the end of the month, and train operators have restored services to 90% of the usual schedule to carry more commuters.
On Wednesday it was reported that the US investment bank Goldman Sachs would bring back its 38,000 global staff part-time on a rota system.
In contrast to the low levels of worker footfall, the Centre for Cities report shows that visitor numbers shot up in seaside towns and smaller communities in August, aided by warm weather and the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme.
In a boost for parts of Britain that have typically lagged behind the economic performance of bigger cities, seaside towns such as Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend, as well as smaller places such as Birkenhead and Chatham, proved particularly popular with visitors.
The report says city-centre footfall was above pre-pandemic levels in 14 of the 63 cities and towns studied. Visitor numbers in Blackpool were at 141% of pre-crisis levels, while visits to London were at 31% of normal.
Andrew Carter, the Centre for Cities chief executive, said: “There is little indication that workers are heeding the government’s call to return to their offices, and city centre restaurants, pubs and shops face an uncertain future while they remain at home. Unless we see a big increase in people returning to the office, the chancellor must set out how he will support the people working in retail and hospitality who could soon find themselves out of a job.”