Return to UK offices accelerates despite fears over coronavirus surge

Workers have started to return to offices and workplaces in greater numbers across the UK despite fears over the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

With the majority of schools reopening in the last week, company bosses have said they are seeing more workers come back to the office, with public transport use also increasing as a result.

The number of London Underground journeys was 15 per cent higher on Monday compared with Tuesday last week — the first working day after the Bank Holiday, rising to more than a fifth higher on Tuesday morning, again compared with last Tuesday. The number of bus journeys in the capital was almost 40 per cent higher on Monday than last Tuesday, and 46 per cent higher on Tuesday morning.

Part of the increase was due to children returning to school — about half of the increase in bus use and a third of the extra trips on the Tube — but transport officials said that people were also slowly returning to workplaces. 

Overall numbers are still significantly lower than before the start of the pandemic, however; down almost two-thirds for the Tube and half for London buses.

On Tuesday, Catherine McGuinness, head of policy for the City of London Corporation, said that she was “very concerned” about the still much lower numbers of workers in the City and the impact that this would have on the local economy.

National train operators also said that passenger numbers were increasing. Govia Thameslink, which runs commuter trains such as on the Southern routes into London, said that passenger numbers were about one-third of the pre-pandemic levels last week but by Monday had increased to about 40 per cent. Again, some of this increase reflected the start of the school term.

Line chart of Transport usage as a % of equivalent day in 2019 showing People are returning to private transport much more quickly than public transport

The Rail Delivery Group — which represents train operators and Network Rail, the owner and manager of the infrastructure — said anecdotal evidence suggested there had been a “slight increase in customer numbers this week” but that no train services had been even close to social distancing capacity.

“Slightly more people are travelling as more schools reopen but there is still room on trains to keep social distancing, especially at quieter times.”

Other cities have also reported increasing levels of traffic since the start of the month. In Birmingham, the council on Monday reported an 8 per cent increase in traffic on the A38(M) underneath Dartmouth Circus, which carries the greatest proportion of traffic entering the city centre, in the peak rush hour period compared with last week. This increased again on Tuesday by a further 9 per cent, compared with last week. Overall, traffic levels were still 12.8 per cent lower than before coronavirus.

Employers reported that more staff were returning, but companies had also largely embraced remote working. One company boss said that almost half of his dozens of staff had returned, but that was the limit before they breached social distancing rules. 

A group of London-based businesses, including insurers Aon, Aviva and Legal & General, management consultants Accenture, law firm Clyde & Co, and property company JLL held a meeting on Monday to discuss ways that companies would work to support employees and businesses return to the workplace.

Ministers last week urged more workers to return, warning about the impact on the economy and businesses in city centres if people continued to stay at home. However, officials have since played down the prospect of a rumoured media campaign to encourage people to go back to workplaces. 

Business secretary Alok Sharma held a meeting with business leaders on Thursday last week to hear what they were doing to help people back to the office, but did not advocate any push for a return to workplaces.

On Monday, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced a new survey of London’s businesses to find the numbers returning to offices in the immediate and longer term. He said that “Londoners are not stupid”, pointing to Covid-19 cases rising across Europe.

City Hall research showed that the main reason people were reluctant to return to the city centre and offices was because they do not feel safe.

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