THEY’RE BACK AT WORK... WHERE’S REST OF UK?
As thousands of children return to school, railways, roads and offices stand empty...
Britain took a huge step back to normality yesterday as children finally returned to school.
Yet the drive to get workers back to offices stalled again – on the first day after the summer holidays.
Early reports put pupil attendance at above 90 per cent – a figure at little risk of being matched in many workplaces. Ministers hoped reopening schools after six months would let more parents return to the office.
But many of the largest railway stations remained eerily empty during what was once the rush-hour.
London transport networks were barely busier than last week, with Tube use still 70 per cent down on this time last year. Buses in the capital carried half their usual numbers.
Figures out yesterday suggested that West end traders could lose £10billion a year and shed 50,000 jobs because of a sharp drop in business from commuters and foreign visitors.
Boris Johnson last night claimed ‘large numbers’ were already returning to offices. But Tory MPs indicated there was little evidence for this.
Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, said most healthy adults had little to fear from coronavirus and should get on with their lives now the epidemic was under control.
‘I want the PM to level with the nation, be honest with the nation, look
it in the eye and say it is all of our duty to do our bit for our communities and society,’ he told Channel 4 News.
‘At the forefront of that is getting on with our lives and going back to work.’
Felllow Tory MP Steve Baker, who returned to Parliament yesterday along with all his staff, said: ‘Of course it’s disappointing that workers aren’t going back, and I would advise the public to consider the consequences of their continuing to work from home when their children are back in the classroom.
‘I don’t want to condemn anyone, but I would advise people to look down the road and look at the ruin that awaits us if we don’t get back to the office.
‘There are people relying on office workers coming back, and many of them will lose their jobs. The consequences will be dire for ordinary working people, the whole economy and inevitably eventually for every last one of us.’
Downing Street fears huge job losses in town and city centre shops and cafes if workers do not return to their pre-lockdown commuter patterns.
Later this week, ministers will launch a PR blitz, encouraging all employees to get back to normality.
Mr Johnson has faced criticism for failing to up his rhetoric on the issue. There have also been questions about the Government’s inability to get civil servants back to set an example.
The Prime Minister attempted to address the issue at his socially-distanced Cabinet meeting in the Foreign Office yesterday, saying: ‘Across the country hundreds and thousands, millions of pupils are going back to school thanks to the huge efforts their teachers and their parents have made over the last few days and weeks.
‘People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country, and quite right too.’
No 10 said it was unable to provide any evidence to support this claim.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘It is too soon for us to be able to share figures with you on people returning to work. The message from the PM is he recognises the importance that returning to work has in stimulating the economy.’
He said more civil servants would begin to return ‘over the coming weeks’.
Former transport minister John Spellar accused Mr Johnson of ‘making it up’ to cover for government indecisiveness.
He added: ‘If No 10 have any evidence to support the Prime Minister’s claims they should publish it immediately. If they are serious about encouraging people back to work, then transparency and credibility are absolutely vital.’
Transport for London confirmed Tube numbers were down 72 per cent yesterday compared with the same day last year. Bus use was down 53 per cent.
However, the authority said Underground use had risen 8 per cent in a week and buses by 6 per cent.
Train timetables will be restored to almost 100 per cent of pre-pandemic levels from Monday although rail insiders suspect any increase will be slight because many operators have told their staff to continue working from home for months to come.
The Mail revealed that in late July just 20 per cent of civil servants were back at their desks – the only time the Government has revealed any details at all about working patterns in the wake of the pandemic. Whitehall’s union boss has warned that just a third of civil servants are likely to be back by Christmas.
Nickie Aiken, Tory MP for Cities of London and Westminster, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that as many as 50,000 employees in the capital’s retail sector faced losing their jobs due to the lack of visitors.
She pinned some blame on a ‘huge fall-off in confidence’ in public transport.