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Britain needs to get back to work where it can – or we’ll kill our cities

MANY fortunes have been made over the years at the financial firms that populate the City of London and support thousands of jobs around the country.

Now those very same firms are strangling the golden goose of commerce just as we need to stimulate an economic recovery — by letting staff work from home for the foreseeable future.

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Today, it emerged that banking giant JP Morgan, a City stalwart which also has big offices in Basingstoke and Bournemouth, will allow staff to split their time permanently between home and the office after the Covid-19 crisis.

NatWest, until recently called RBS, has told nearly 50,000 staff across the UK to work at home till next year.

Carlyle Group, a global private equity group, has even told London staff to avoid public transport for their commute. And if they use it at weekends they will have to stay away for 14 days.

Of course, health is a priority for all of us in the pandemic but for many of these financial giants, effectively putting an end to the daily commute is as much about saving on property costs as it is about well-being.

The danger is that should remote working continue indefinitely for so many people, there will be severe economic repercussions — particularly as it is not just big finance that has embraced it so enthusiastically.

Fifty of the largest UK employers surveyed by the BBC this week said they have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future.

Civil servants and other public sector workers are behaving no differently.

Thousands are expected to continue working from home until at least the end of the year.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) says a whopping 93 per cent of its managers report that all or some employees in their organisations are still home working.

The CMI’s membership is largely drawn from office-based workers.

No-one wants to catch the virus or to shiver on a damp train platform in winter, but our entire way of life is now under threat.

City centres currently resemble ghost towns, with people now preferring to shop locally.

Many of us have also got used to relying on Amazon.

Shops and cafes in previously buzzing locations around the country are reeling from a lack of customers.

In London’s West End, footfall — the lifeblood of businesses that rely on office workers and commuters — is down 63 per cent year on year as shoppers shy away from using public transport.

It is a pattern that is repeated around the country and one only made worse by home working.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street said: “This is undeniably a very difficult situation for businesses that thrive on the back of the big office occupiers being there.

“What we are trying to do is steadily build confidence that it is safe to return to the city centre.”

Birmingham’s transport system is currently carrying about 20 per cent of pre-Covid numbers but the mayor hopes this will rise to 50 per cent over the autumn.

In the meantime, the job losses continue to mount, threatening Britain’s fledgling recovery.

WHSmith is axing 1,500 workers, in large part because the recovery in its travel concessions is achingly slow.

Debenhams has cut 2,500 as shoppers stay away and has indicated that it will be liquidated if it cannot be sold. M&S is making 7,000 redundancies as clothing sales sag.

Sandwich chain Pret a Manger has cut staff hours by 20 per cent.

Today, Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca said it is to close more than a third of its restaurants, after becoming the latest dining firm to be clobbered by the pandemic.

The group is to close ten of its 28 sites, many in city centre locations.

If jobs continue to disappear at these firms, young people will struggle to support themselves while studying or to get valuable experience in the world of work.

At this rate, when we do all finally return to our desks next year, some of these chains may no longer be there. Then it will be packed lunches and tap water for all of us.

It is not just employment and key services that will suffer.

The boss of consumer goods giant Unilever rightly says that people need to be together for innovation to happen.

The UK is traditionally great at innovating, and it is a vital ingredient for spurring a recovery as we come out of the worst recession for 100 years.

We are at the point where we need to decide what kind of recovery we want, and put in place concrete proposals to build it.

There is much talk of a “green recovery” or inclusive capitalism.

Remote working is not the basis for either to happen. Office life, and the ideas it generates, is.

Downing Street has argued that civil servants should set an example to the private sector by returning to the office, in a move that would also help city centre service businesses.

So far that call has fallen on deaf ears.

Home working had its place in saving lives when the pandemic was raging, but as schools go back, Britain needs to get back to work where it can.

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