It could be a slow return to business across the UK as cold weather and continued fears over the spread of Omicron keep many workers, shoppers and diners at home, despite the change in guidance. The many workplaces that have told staff to work from home until an exam at the end of January are also unlikely to quickly change their plan.
The London Underground network recorded 8% more journeys on Thursday compared to a week earlier. Transport for London said 1.09m entry and exit ‘tap taps’ with contactless or Oyster cards were recorded until 10am Thursday in the tube, around 80,000 more than the morning peak of last Thursday. Bus journeys were up 3% week-on-week, with 1.19 million boardings recorded on Thursday morning.
The new guidelines appear to have made no discernible difference to road traffic, with morning congestion peaking slightly lower on Thursday than Wednesday in London, Manchester and the West Midlands urban region, according to data from the sat nav company TomTom.
Retailers are hoping a return to offices will help downtown stores, but are unsure how the relaunch of leisure and entertainment attractions, as well as squeezing the cost of living, will affect spending on non-essential goods.
Visitor numbers to UK city centers outside the capital rose nearly 2% on Thursday from the same day a week earlier and nearly 4% in London. Across all destinations, numbers were virtually flat week-on-week and down a fifth from pre-pandemic levels according to data provider Springboard – a similar trend to recent months.
Sales at the Pret a Manger cafe chain at London train stations were just 71% of pre-Covid levels last week. Its sales in the periphery, on the other hand, are up 15% compared to 2019.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of trade body British Retail Consortium, said: “Consumers had limited options on how to spend their money in 2021 and will soon find themselves with more choice and less to spend.”
John Bason, the chief financial officer of Primark owner Associated British Foods, said Primark’s city center stores were unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels but he expected better times. “We are confident [city centres] going to get better now that we’re coming off of Omicron and some of the restrictions. We must see an increase in the number of tourists. I will feel much better in the summer,” he said.
Pub and restaurant bosses say there are early indications of a release of pent-up demand from December, when many people stayed home to ensure they could still enjoy Christmas . Revolution Bars, which has 67 UK locations, said corporate parties canceled in December were “pleasantly” rescheduled for early 2022. Chris Jowsey, managing director of pub chain Admiral Taverns, which has 1 000 pubs, said weekend trading had been decent.
A third of consumers expect more home visits after January, according to a survey by data analysts CGA.
For bankers, a return to the office – or not – depends a lot on your employer and your function.
Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon was one of big business’s most vocal advocates of returning to offices when possible and US investment banking staff have been urged to return.
HSBC said it was making arrangements for colleagues to return to UK offices under their hybrid working arrangements from Thursday. Santander UK will update its office workers in the coming days, but it will also remove the requirement for customers to wear a mask in branches after February 27.
It is believed that JP Morgan is likely to revert to pre-Plan B measures, where teams decided on their own working patterns but everyone had to be in the office for at least part of the week. During the Plan B restrictions, the bank had as little as 15% of staff in English offices, up from more than half before the Omicron wave.
Tradespeople, whose roles are tightly regulated, would be among the workers most likely to have remained in offices during the Plan B measures, often for up to five days a week.
Companies providing flexible office space said they were already seeing an increase in demand as companies and their staff returned to offices in greater numbers and adopted hybrid work models.
“Following the lifting of work from home guidelines in July 2021, we have seen an increase in deals with new and existing customers as well as increased footfall at our UK locations,” said Mark Dixon. , founder and CEO of IWG.
“We expect to see similar business momentum this time around with particularly strong demand for our suburban and rural areas.”
Rival firm Workspace said the decision to drop Plan B restrictions would further boost business confidence at a time when its customers were already returning to the office.
Gyms are hoping for a surge in membership as working from home is phased out and fitness enthusiasts feel more confident about returning to using indoor equipment.
On Thursday, The Gym Group, which has around 200 outlets, said visits per member had returned to pre-Covid levels in January and membership had risen 8% from December.
Richard Darwin, Managing Director of The Gym Group, said: “We have been encouraged to see good levels of gym usage and new member acquisition so far this year.”