City plunged back into shut­down as staff go home

Firms in the Square Mile and Ca­nary Wharf have put the brakes on plans for a re­turn to the of­fice

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By Michael O’Dwyer

BRI­TAIN’S big­gest banks, law firms and ac­coun­tants have can­celled plans to bring thou­sands of work­ers back to the of­fice fol­low­ing new ad­vice from min­is­ters, drag­ging the City back into shut­down and spark­ing fresh fears for Lon­don’s tot­ter­ing econ­omy.

Some of the Square Mile’s big­gest busi­nesses have said staff should work from home again just weeks af­ter be­gin­ning to re­open, as the rules are changed amid a resur­gence in Covid in­fec­tions.

Those to U-turn in­clude ac­coun­tant PwC, which was pre­vi­ously an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of the re­turn to work but has now told its 22,000 UK staff to stop com­ing to the of­fice un­less they have a clear per­sonal or busi­ness need.

HSBC, Gold­man Sachs, Cit­i­group, Deutsche Bank and Lloyds all also changed tack yes­ter­day. They have more than 40,000 work­ers be­tween them in the City and Ca­nary Wharf.

Bar­clays up­dated its in­struc­tions to staff the pre­vi­ous day, shortly af­ter new guid­ance was an­nounced.

The vast ma­jor­ity of work­ers at “magic cir­cle” law firm Lin­klaters, ac­coun­tant KPMG, in­surer His­cox and the Lloyd’s of Lon­don in­surance mar­ket will also work re­motely un­less their jobs re­quire them to at­tend in per­son or work­ing from home is harm­ing their well-be­ing.

In­vest­ment banks and other fi­nan­cial ser­vices firms con­trib­ute £75.5bn to the Ex­che­quer each year, 10pc of Bri­tain’s an­nual tax take – the vast ma­jor­ity of which is gen­er­ated in the cap­i­tal. Their le­gions of highly skilled work­ers play a key role in prop­ping up a Lon­don econ­omy that sup­ports 6.1m jobs.

It is now feared that a six-month pause on of­fice life will trig­ger mass bank­rupt­cies for the bars, restau­rants, shops and other small busi­nesses that de­pend on City trade.

Cather­ine McGuin­ness, pol­icy chair­man for the City of Lon­don Corporatio­n, said safety has to come first but ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment at the blan­ket call for of­fice work­ers to re­turn to work­ing from home where pos­si­ble.

Speak­ing to BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day pro­gramme, she said: “Firms have taken huge steps to make sure that their of­fices are Covid se­cure. It’s clear that this virus isn’t go­ing to go away quickly so we need to find a way of liv­ing with it that doesn’t crip­ple our econ­omy.”

Ms McGuin­ness called on the Gov­ern­ment to look closely at the ev­i­dence to sup­port work­ing from home and said other fi­nan­cial cen­tres had brought peo­ple back to of­fices with­out ap­par­ent re­lated in­creases in in­fec­tions.

Bri­tain was al­ready lag­ging far be­hind other Euro­pean coun­tries on a re­turn to of­fice life be­fore the new guid­ance. An­a­lysts at Mor­gan Stan­ley said in Au­gust that only 34pc of UK white-col­lar em­ploy­ees had gone back to work, com­pared to al­most three quar­ters of staff on the Con­ti­nent.

PwC was one of the most vo­cal City firms to call for em­ploy­ees to re­turn to the of­fice, and about half its staff had been back in at some point since the stay at home guid­ance was re­laxed.

The com­pany was forced to change tack af­ter the Prime Min­is­ter said on Tues­day that peo­ple in Eng­land should work from home as the UK bat­tles a sharp rise in in­fec­tions. Weeks ear­lier, White­hall was draw­ing up plans for a back-to-work advertisin­g cam­paign and of­fi­cials were brief­ing that em­ploy­ees who stayed at home could find their jobs were at risk.

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