It’s back to the office we go, London

Tens of thousands more commuters poured back into central London today on the first Monday since working from home guidance was ditched.


Some trains were “rammed” as the Great Return to the office picked up momentum, raising hopes that nearly two years of often dismal trade for many businesses in the city centre may soon be coming to an end.


Early figures showed around 820,000 entry and exits on the Tube by 9am, up six per cent compared with last Monday, and a 14 per cent rise from a fortnight ago, suggesting the return to the office is happening gradually rather than a sudden rush.


As Plan B restrictions were being eased, Cabinet minister Steve Barclay urged millions of Londoners including the civil service, to get the city’s economy back to running at “full speed”.


With more than 9,300 confirmed Covid infections announced on Sunday in London, public health chiefs were also urging people to remain vigilant in combating the disease, including by continuing to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces, to test regularly and to self-isolate if they get the disease.


As thousands of commuters flocked back through a hectic Victoria station, many of them were delighted to be heading back into the office.


Ellen Hart, 23, travelling to work at a property consultancy, said she was “excited” adding: “I’ve really missed the people. That may be cheesy to say but I’m a graduate and still learning from people. It’s all the little things that you overhear in the office that stick with you. You can’t get that cooped up at home.”


Jordan Williams, 25, was starting her first day of a new job as head of recruitment. She said: “The trains are rammed again this morning. I’m not worried about Covid, it’s just you would be lucky to get a seat. But I’m excited to get back to hybrid working and meeting my new workmates.”


With some workers wanting to be in the office on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and to WFH on Monday and Fridays, the network could get busier on Tueseday.


Cabinet Office minister Mr Barclay piled pressure on union bosses and Whitehall mandarins not to delay getting civil servants back at their desks, amid reports that they may only be asked to come back in for a few days a week in some departments.


He told the Standard: “Now we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted Plan B measures, it’s time to get back to full speed in all parts of Whitehall as well as London. The civil service has played a leading role in helping the country tackle the pandemic.


“It’s important that we now see the maximum use of our office space as we build a strong recovery after the disruption of the pandemic.” However, union bosses were warning against “blanket mandates” to return to the office, urging employers to consult staff, ensure buildings are Covid secure and also allow hybrid working.


Paul Novak, deputy general secretary at the TUC, said significant numbers of people would be starting to return to the office from this week.


He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What’s really important is rather than blanket mandates or unhelpful language about ‘shirkers’ getting back to the office, employers have sensible conversations with their staff about how that return will happen, over what time scale, people’s preferred patterns of working, and crucially what can employers do to give people confidence that their workplace is Covid secure and is as safe as possible.”


He added: “Employers are legally obliged to carry out a risk assessment and consultation with their staff.” The legal requirement to wear masks on the Tube, other public transport and in shops will be dropped on Thursday, as will Covid passports in nightclubs and some other venues.


However, Mayor Sadiq Khan is keeping mask wearing as a condition of travel on Transport for London services. There were around two million journeys on the Tube on weekdays last week, around half of pre-pandemic levels and up around 10 per cent compared to the week before.


On Friday, 2.12 million Tube journeys were made, a rise of around 11 per cent in a week.


Weekday bus use was between 4.3 and 4.5 million journeys a day, about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. At weekends, Tube and bus use is closer to pre-pandemic levels with the Tube reaching 1.92 million journeys on Saturday (64 percent per cent of pre-pandemic levels) and some specific times of the day close to three-quarters of the level before Covid struck.


A new report by the Centre for Cities showed central London lost 47 weeks of sales between the first lockdown and the Omicron wave hitting.


The hospitality sector was hardest hit, losing about 52 weeks of sales, with workers in central London being the most reluctant of major cities to return. Sandwich and coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, bars and other retail and entertainment outlets hope the end of Plan B will boost trade.


Evening Standard (Nicholas Cecil) -

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