Just one in six workers have gone back to work in cities this summer after companies and staff ignored government pleas to return, leaving economic activity deeply depressed and placing thousands of small businesses at risk of collapse.
Figures compiled for Sky News reveal that worker footfall in Britain’s cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.
Office attendance flatlined despite the government abandoning its “work from home” guidance on 1 August and Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally urging staff to return.
The data, compiled by the Centre for Cities think tank, shows that the change in advice on 1 August had no impact on average worker footfall in the 63 largest cities and towns in the UK.
The figures do show a recovery in overall footfall, including weekend and night time visitors, since July, when pubs and non-essential retailers were able to re-open.
The national capitals are among the lowest-scoring, with worker footfall at just 13% in London, 14% in Cardiff and Edinburgh and 18% in Belfast.
In central London and Manchester, early August weekday footfall rose by just one percentage point compared to early July.
Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham all saw no change, and in Birmingham city centre the number of workers fell.
Overall footfall, including night time and weekends, is also depressed in major cities, at just 27% in London, 46% in Cardiff and 56% in Edinburgh, which may have benefited from a partial return of tourists.
Average total footfall for all cities was at 56% of pre-lockdown levels in August, a 5% increase on July, with coastal tourist centres Bournemouth, Blackpool and Brighton showing the largest increase.
Despite the partial recovery in overall footfall since the re-opening of shops, pubs and restaurants, the largest cities remain the worst affected and the slowest to recover.
By contrast, some smaller cities and large towns – many of which had fundamentally weaker economies pre-lockdown but are less reliant on public transport – have recovered well.
Blackpool, Bournemouth, Birkenhead, Southend, Chatham, Basildon and Doncaster have all seen footfall bounce back above pre-lockdown levels.
While any recovery on high streets and in offices is welcome, small cities are economically dwarfed by the largest population centres, and a prolonged absence of workers from Britain’s largest cities could prove a major drag on any economic recovery.
Uniformly, cities of all sizes saw no positive impact following the prime minister’s call for staff to go back to offices this month, suggesting companies and workers roundly ignored his plea for them to begin a “return to normality”.
The data will add to concerns about the sustainability of major city centre economies and the pace at which working patterns will start to move significantly back towards pre-coronavirus levels.
Mr Johnson announced he was abandoning the government’s advice to “work from home where you can”, in place since the start of lockdown, at a Downing Street press conference on 17 July.
He urged people to return to work if it was safe, suggesting it would help the country return to “something like normal” by November, but said the final decision lay with employers.
The change in policy followed a warning from Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey about the impact the collapse in commuting would have on city centre services and industries that support office workers.
The abandonment of city centres puts the future of thousands of businesses at risk.
Hospitality companies that thrive on footfall, and services such as hairdressers, dry cleaners and cobblers reliant on workers, could be devastated unless cities return to normal.
Thousands of jobs in support services including cleaners, catering and security are also at risk, and a prolonged absence from city centres also imperils the financial model of public transport systems.
“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.”
The Treasury’s Eat Out to Help Out meal discount scheme, which also began on 1 August, has had a positive impact, with evening footfall on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays increasing by an average of 7%.
Small and medium-sized cities and large towns saw the largest increase (10% and 14% respectively), with a 7% increase in large cities.
London saw a positive impact of just 3%.
Centre for Cities uses anonymized phone data. Signals emitted by mobile phones within a pre-defined geography are aggregated and used to evaluate average footfall across city centres, in the UK’s 63 largest cities and towns. They are then compared to a pre-lockdown baseline in order to estimate the recovery in pedestrian activity. Worker footfall is defined as daytime weekday visitors to city and town centres.
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