Scrapped Covid rules bring fewer than 20% of UK city workers back to the office

Footfall in 30 big cities well below pre-pandemic levels despite end to guidance on non-essential workers staying at home

Fewer than one in five people working in cities across the UK had returned to the office by the end of July, figures have revealed.

A report from the Centre for Cities thinktank said worker footfall in 30 big cities stood at an average of just 18% of pre-pandemic levels in the immediate aftermath of most Covid laws being scrapped in England.

The biggest migration of workers back to the office has occurred in Brighton, with 49% of people having returned to their desks, a rise of 6% on the previous week. This was followed by Gloucester (39%), Southend (38%) and York (37%).

Cities where only a fraction of workers have gone back to the office include Glasgow, with an 8% figure – the city has had coronavirus restrictions in force for longer, given Scotland’s slower easing than England – followed by London and Oxford (15%) and Sheffield and Milton Keynes (16%).

Daytime worker footfall fell by 1% in the final week of July compared with the previous seven days, and on average was running at barely half the pre-Covid levels.

Paul Swinney, director of policy at Centre for Cities, said it showed there remained significant reluctance among some workers to head back to the office in the “largest and most economically important cities”.

He said that the “sandwich economy” that catered to city-centre office workers was facing “an uncertain future” as the end of the furlough scheme in September came closer.

Government guidance for offices was changed on 19 July to drop the requirement for non-essential workers to stay at home if possible, leaving it up to employer choice. This has bred uncertainty for some, and Whitehall departments have been grappling with how much civil servants should be ordered into the office.


The Guardian revealed over the weekend that Sajid Javid’s health department had dropped plans to make it mandatory for staff to be in the office four to eight days a month from September, and that senior mandarins from other departments had held talks on whether to scrap officials’ London-weighted salaries if they resisted at least a partial return to Whitehall.

The Centre for Cities’ report also found a mixed picture for the recovery of nightlife across the country.

Blackpool had a 50% increase in night-time footfall as clubbers in the north of England and the Midlands demonstrated the greatest desire to take advantage of the lifting of lockdown rules.

The strongest recoveries in overall footfall after Blackpool were in Sunderland (37%) and Leicester, Middlesbrough and Wakefield (all 32%). Bars, restaurants and clubs in the big metropolitan centres in the north and Midlands – Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle – also saw hefty increases in activity.

By contrast, night-time footfall in London, Luton and Slough, remained unchanged since clubs reopened and social distancing rules were removed.

Overall, the thinktank found an average 16% increase in footfall in 63 towns and cities across the UK in the period after 19 July. Only Blackpool and Bournemouth had seen footfall return to pre-pandemic levels, and the Centre for Cities said each was getting a temporary boost from people in the UK having holidays at home.

Swinney said it was a “mixed picture as the country takes its next steps back to normality, both for different types of businesses and for different places”.

He added: “People’s eagerness, particularly in cities in the north and Midlands, to go out and socialise has been a lifeline for many businesses in the night-time economy.”

The thinktank’s data showed the top five cities for footfall were all tourist destinations: Blackpool; Bournemouth; Southend; Brighton; and York. The five weakest performers were: London, affected by home working and a lack of overseas tourists; Oxford; Birmingham; Manchester; and Glasgow. Footfall in London is running at just 35% of its pre-pandemic level.

According to the latest statistics from the Treasury 1.9 million people were still on furlough schemes as of 30 June 2021, a decrease of 590,000 in the past month. London was the English region with the highest number of people on furlough, standing at 424,200.


Larry Elliott

The GuardianTramp

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