London’s monetary middle Metropolis ponders the long run after COVID

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London’s once bustling financial district, City, is coming back to life, but bears the scars of a deadly pandemic and raises new questions about the future of the so-called “Square Mile”. The COVID-19 health crisis broke out in April last year, triggering a nationwide lockdown that turned the global financial center into a ghost town. City workers were forced to work remotely, and some have since adopted hybrid or flexible work that divides time between home and office. The UK left the lockdown entirely last month, backed by a quick vaccination, but many workers seem in no rush to get back to the office for fear of the Delta-COVID variant.

“Reluctance to take risks”

“Many are still reluctant to be exposed to the virus, either at work or on the way to work,” Lorna Landells, corporate real estate specialist at Remit Consulting, told AFP. The government’s school holidays and Covid policies have had an impact on the return to office life, but fully vaccinated Britons no longer need to self-isolate after contact with an infected person. Nevertheless, according to Remit, the occupancy of the London offices in the week up to August 20 is only 10.3 percent of the total capacity. “When I look out of my office window, the streets look pretty empty,” said Nigel Wilson, head of the legal & general insurance company, in a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper. “We’re still at the beginning (the reopening) and I expect more people to come back in September.”

“London will not return”

In contrast, Howard Davies, chairman of NatWest Bank and former head of London’s financial regulator, believes the city has changed forever. “The days when 2,500 people came through our office door … at 8:30 am and left again at 6:00 pm, I think that’s over,” he told Bloomberg. “As the day goes on, things will look very different and central London will not be what we used to be – people are concerned about the risks of travel and have discovered that they can do things differently.” UK Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, would like office workers to return, which will encourage young people’s careers. However, banking giants like Barclays and HSBC are relying on long-term hybrid work patterns that have also reduced their need for office space. Nearly 80 percent of city workers plan to be back in the office by September, according to a recent survey by recruiting firm Michael Page. But only 25 percent of workers expect a return to the full five-day week.

“Important hub”

The city administration praises the prospects for the area, whose financial strength is already uncertain due to Brexit, positive. “Central office hubs still play a critical role – be it for human resource development, team morale, collaboration and creativity, networking opportunities or much more,” said Catherine McGuinness, Policy Chair of the City of London Corporation, in a statement to AFP. “Many employees themselves are eager to return to the office for at least part of the week, and their return will provide the footfall required by the hospitality and retail sectors.” The company operates the Square Mile, or the historic financial district, which includes the Bank of England and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London, said the city would maintain its importance despite falling commuter traffic. “While working patterns are sure to change – and that may mean some changes in the feel of the city – I think London will remain a major center of global finance,” he told AFP. More than half a million people commuted and worked in the city before the pandemic, breathing life into its cafes, pubs and restaurants.

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