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This town is coming like a ghost town

27 August 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

Almost a month has passed since ‘Back to Work Monday’ – the day the Prime Minister announced we should be returning to offices in our masses, having dropped the stay at home guidance. Had next Monday have not been a Bank Holiday, it is likely that too would be named ‘Back to Work Monday’ as, I think it is fair to say, the last one did not appear to have had the required impact. Or at least, not the impact as the Prime Minister had wanted.

Only today, Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI, has voiced concerns that city centres risk becoming permanent “ghost towns”. Her fears seem justified. Having myself been in Newgate’s City office regularly these last few weeks, the City has more the feel of a Sunday, rather than a Thursday. The stats support this too with mobile phone data analysis suggesting that this month, just 17% of workers have returned to offices in the major UK city centres (a percentage that remained the same since the end of June), with just an estimated 13% in London. 

Fairbairn placed the importance of returning employees back to offices alongside that of getting pupils back to school. Unlike the wholly united voice of the government on the return of children back to school being a priority, it would seem that the Cabinet is not so united on the back to offices language. 

Matt Hancock, speaking on Times Radio this morning, was less firm on the Party line. When asked about his own Department’s return to office, Hancock said that he had “absolutely no idea” how many were in or working from home. He said that he cared about “how effectively people work and obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job.” Whilst not a total deviation from the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, it is a far stretch from Boris’ classic bluster in favour of a workforce returning to offices. 

Of course, its August. I am sure many of the readers of this blog are too away from their desks on holiday. But September, traditionally marking the end of the summer and the final push, should see fewer workers on holiday. Many companies will be looking to September as the new Q1 for this year, and perhaps that will mean a stronger encouragement back to offices. This will please the Prime Minister greatly; the Health Secretary it would seem, is less fussed.