The government has told all workers in England they should work from home, if possible, until April 2021 as part of a move to a stricter tier system that is likely to be a further blow to businesses reliant on commuters in city centres.
Boris Johnson on Monday confirmed that under every tier of new restrictions, workers in England who can work from home should continue to do so. The rules under the new three-tier system will last until at least the end of March if voted through by parliament.
The government’s 64-page Covid-19 winter plan suggested working from home was one of the three key areas highlighted by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). The other policies apparently suggested by Sage included closing pubs that do not serve food in tier 2 areas and closing all hospitality venues in tier 3 areas.
The guidance said: “The previous tiered system had an impact on viral transmission but Sage advised that stronger measures would be needed in some areas to prevent the epidemic from growing. The tiers therefore need to be strengthened to keep the virus under control.”
England’s larger cities, such as Birmingham, Leeds, London and Manchester, and Scottish cities such as Glasgow have lagged behind their smaller counterparts in recovering from lockdowns because of their reliance on workers, according to the Centre for Cities, thinktank. Smaller cities are more reliant on leisure footfall, a disadvantage in normal times that has been flipped on its head by the pandemic.
Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the thinktank, said: “The prospect of them having to hang on to April may mean when city centre workers go back their favourite restaurant or coffee bar may not be there.”
Central London has been particularly hard hit because of the vast number of people who previously commuted into it from other parts of the city or beyond. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, told the Observer on Sunday that there was “potentially an existential threat to central London as we know it” because of the curbs on office workers.
The City of London Corporation, the governing body of the Square Mile which also advocates for the financial services sector, said UK ministers needed to provide a plan for a return to offices before a vaccine.
“What we also urgently need from the government is a clear plan to allow office workers to return to Covid-secure workplaces in order to get as much of the economy operating as possible,” said Catherine McGuinness, the corporation’s policy chair. “This is vital to protect livelihoods.”
It will not be made clear until Thursday which areas will be in which tier, making it difficult for many restaurants, hotels and pubs to plan to open after England’s lockdown ends.
Jasmine Whitbread, the chief executive of the London First thinktank, called for a “clear and unambiguous message on the safety of public transport and to encourage workers back to Covid-secure offices, so the job of kick-starting the economy can begin again”.