Back to work everybody, your towns and cities need you!

  • 21 Jul 2020

By Robert Downes, FSB Develpoment Manager, Greater Manchester

Cast your mind back to late March; C-19 was just about to move into top gear, and the UK was on the cusp of full lockdown. The Government’s advice for employers and workers was: ‘work from home if you can’.

This message, as you’d expect, was duly amplified by town halls, mayoral offices, combined authorities, and indeed other organisations like the FSB. And as messaging goes, it’s certainly been well heeded. The country for many months has been ghostly, and our towns and cities looked like sets from the latest post-apocalypse blockbuster.

But it was serving a purpose, and as was intended, it restricted the spread of the disease and ensured the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed; key workers have been able to travel safely on buses and trams here in Greater Manchester, and the ‘R’ number is below one. Job done! But it’s now starting to look a bit like, job ‘too well done’, with many businesses – especially those in the service sector – discovering people are none too quick to change their routines again.

 

Fast forward four months and the ‘work from home if you can’ catchphrase changed on Friday (July 16), to get back to work if you can as long as it’s safe – more or less the new message. And that’s exactly what we need. The economy has been in deep freeze, but it’s now time for the big thaw.

Many businesses will be hoping it’s sooner rather than later, too. As the nation started to unwind from lockdown last month, starting with retail, then the pubs, restaurants and hairdressers – and soon beauty salons, gyms, and nail bars – the issue has been around foot fall. Or more accurately, lack of.

But there appears to be two different narratives here, albeit anecdotal. The district centres around Greater Manchester appear to be faring OK, with visible number of shoppers making the most of what’s open. Only this weekend I saw a long queue of people waiting to get a seat at a café, while some restaurants are struggling for numbers. It seems as if people aren’t straying far, and are instead – ironically – shopping local.

But in main town centres it’s a different story, and particularly in Manchester City Centre, all is not well. The footfall figures for the latter are down massively, put at around 20% of pre-Covid, and public transport usage is still not running at anything like capacity even using the 1m + distancing rule.

The office blocks there remain largely empty, the students that once were a familiar site across city are now gone – and who knows when they’ll return? The car parks – well, you can take your pick these days, there’s certainly no going up to Level 8 at an NCP to bag a space.

 

I went in to Manchester last week, fully expecting it to have an eerie, zombie like feel about the place, and in parts yes, it was quiet. Market Street, was however, busy with shoppers, but as you moved to other areas you could see the city centre was far from its usual hive of activity. What’s more, there are still a significant number of eateries and cafes that remain shut.

Above: A quiet looking Deansgate

So what is to be done? While we can’t bring the students back, the office workers will be key, and that’s something within the gift of many bosses, and indeed the public sector. For these are the people who buy the coffee and the croissant from the cafés on the morning commute, the sandwich at lunchtime from the butty shop, the glass of wine or beer after work, or a treatment at one of the many beauticians, or the business meal on expenses, or where you get a few groceries on the way home required for dinner.

But speaking to the office owners last week there seemed precious little appetite from them and indeed even their staff, for any great reverse-exodus. Some workers remain nervous about coming back, and so just don’t want to. So last week’s announcement by the PM setting out the lifting of coronavirus restrictions is intended to hasten the change of sentiment of both workers, business owners, and the public sector. His ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’ approach included:

  • Giving employers more discretion to decide how their staff can work safely – but employers must consult closely with employees
  • People are now allowed to use public transport for non-essential travel, but must look at alternatives first
  • Bowling rinks, skating parks, casinos and beauticians to resume work from August 1
  • Indoor performances to also go live on August 1 and larger gatherings at sports halls will be trialled
  • Local authorities now have the power to shut public outdoor spaces and cancel public events
  • Conferences and business events can resume in a Covid-secure way from October
  • Nightclubs and soft play centres must still remain shut

 

For three weeks, the number of positive cases identified has been below 1,000, with the R rate between 0.7 and 0.9, which means the virus is diminishing, and now there is hope the worst of the virus is over. So we have listened to the science at the start, and all the way throughout, surely we must listen to it now?