It could be a slow return to business across the UK as chilly weather and ongoing fears about the spread of Omicron keep many workers, shoppers and diners at home, despite the change in guidance. The many workplaces who have told staff to work from home until a review in late January are also unlikely to make a swift change in plan.
The London underground network recorded 8% more journeys on Thursday compared with a week earlier. Transport for London said 1.09m entry and exit “taps” with contactless cards or Oyster were recorded up to 10am on Thursday on the tube – about 80,000 more than last Thursday’s morning peak. Bus journeys were up 3% week on week, with 1.19m boarding taps recorded during Thursday morning.
The changed guidance appeared to have made no discernible difference to road traffic, with morning peak congestion slightly lower on Thursday than Wednesday in London, Manchester and the West Midlands urban region, according to data from satnav firm TomTom.
Retailers are hopeful that a return to offices will help city centre stores but unsure how the revival of leisure and entertainment attractions, as well as the cost-of-living squeeze, will affect spending on non-essential goods.
The number of visitors to UK city centres outside the capital was up nearly 2% on Thursday compared with the same day a week before and almost 4% higher in London. Across all destinations, numbers were virtually flat week-on-week and down by a fifth on pre-pandemic levels according to data provider Springboard – a similar pattern to recent months.
Cafe chain Pret a Manger’s sales at London stations were at only 71% of pre-Covid levels last week. Its sales in the suburbs, in contrast were 15% up on 2019.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium trade body, 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 finance director of Primark owner Associated British Foods, said it was unlikely Primark’s city centre stores would go back to pre-Covid levels but he did expect better times ahead. “We are confident [city centres] will improve now we are coming out of Omicron and some of the restrictions. We have got to see an increase in the number of tourists. It will feel a lot better in the summer,” he said.
Pub and restaurant bosses say there are early indications of a release in pent-up demand from December, when many people stayed at home to ensure they could still enjoy Christmas. Revolution Bars, which has 67 UK venues, said corporate parties cancelled in December were “pleasingly” being rebooked for early 2022. Chris Jowsey, chief executive of 1,000-strong pub chain Admiral Taverns, said weekend trading had been decent.
A third of consumers are planning more hospitality visits after January, according to survey by data analysts CGA.
For bankers, a return to the office – or not – very much depends on your employer and your role.
Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon was among the most outspoken big business advocates of returning to offices when possible and the US investment bank’s staff have been asked to return.
HSBC said it was making arrangements for colleagues to return to UK offices as part of their hybrid working arrangements from Thursday. Santander UK will update its office-based workers in the coming days, but it will also drop the requirement for customers to wear a mask in branches after 27 February.
JP Morgan is thought to be likely to revert to pre-plan B measures, where teams decided their own working patterns, but everyone had to be in the office for at least some of the week. During the Plan B restrictions the bank had as little as 15% of staff in English offices, compared with more than half before the Omicron wave.
Traders, whose roles are tightly regulated, were thought to be among the workers most likely to have remained in offices during the plan B measures, often for as much as five days a week.
Companies providing flexible office space said they were already seeing a rise in demand as businesses and their staff returned to offices in greater numbers and adopted hybrid working patterns.
“Following the lifting of work from home guidelines in July 2021 we saw an uptake in deals with new and existing customers as well as an increase in footfall across our locations in the UK,” said Mark Dixon, founder and CEO of IWG.
“We are expecting to see similar business momentum this time around with particularly strong demand for our suburban and rural locations.”
Rival company Workspace said the decision to ditch plan B restrictions would further boost business confidence at a time when its customers were already returning to the office.
Gyms are hopeful of an increase in membership as working from home guidance is removed and fitness fans feel more confident about returning to using indoor equipment.
On Thursday, The Gym Group, which has about 200 outlets, said visits per member had returned to pre-Covid levels in January and membership had increased 8% from December.
Richard Darwin, the chief executive of The Gym Group, said: “We have been encouraged to see good levels of gym usage and new member acquisition so far this year.”