London’s big return: thousands pour back into the city after months of WFH

·6-min read
 (Jeremy Selwyn)
(Jeremy Selwyn)

Tens of thousands more commuters poured back into central London on Monday as it saw its busiest morning rush-hour since the pandemic hit.

Early figures showed a 19 per cent jump in passengers on the Tube network up to 9am, compared with last Tuesday, and 43 per cent more on buses. The return to work picked up even more speed during the morning and between 7am and 8am there were 277,000 “taps” on the Tube, up 24 per cent on last week, and 297,000 taps on buses, an increase of 56 per cent.

Between 8am and 9am, there were 332,000 taps on the Tube, up 22 per cent and 321,000 on buses, 71 per cent higher than last Tuesday, the comparison day as Monday was a bank holiday, according to figures from Transport for London.

Mayor Sadiq Khan and business leaders hope Monday morning’s return will mark the start of a steady build in the number of people using London’s restaurants, shops and theatres after a year and a half of near deserted streets. Mr Khan said: “I am delighted that Tube ridership continues to increase as more people return to the office. Our city — and our country — depends on London’s economic recovery.

“I urge returning office workers to make the most of what our city has to offer, including our world-leading bars, pubs and restaurants and our recently launched Let’s Do London Lates programme.”

Last week the Standard revealed that Tube use had reached 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels on several days in August, traditionally a quieter month.

Muniya Barua, policy and strategy director for business group London First, said: “Seeing so many people returning to the capital is brilliant, particularly for all the businesses that depend on Londoners taking advantage of everything on offer in the city, from its coffee stands to its theatres.

“Over the coming days and weeks, as more people come back to the office, it is critical that businesses harness this momentum, so that London can play its part in supporting the whole UK in the return to growth.”

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company, said: “As summer holidays draw to a close and commuters return to the city centre, the West End is thrilled to welcome back those that have been away for the last 18 months.

“Retailers, restaurants, bars and cafés are well prepared and raring to go, as we leap into an autumn set to drive the capital’s recovery.”

Covid restrictions hit central London so hard that Easter Sunday 2020 was the quietest day on the Tube since Queen Victoria was monarch, and the ridership dropped to three to four per cent of normal levels that April. Buses have been around two thirds of normal use.

Last Thursday was the first time two million journeys were taken on the Tube in a single day since the pandemic began. They increased during the 8am to 9am peak hour by 14, 19 and 28 per cent respectively last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, compared with the week before.

On buses those same three days at the same hour saw increases of 11, 27 and 46 per cent, showing that people are returning to offices and other workplaces and pupils to schools.

However, with the vast majority of major employers implementing long-term “hybrid working” plans allowing staff to continue to work from home for several days a week there are major doubts about whether there will ever be a full return to the pre-Covid “normal.” London saw 3,641 confirmed new Covid cases on Sunday.

‘Like the first day of school’

Commuters who were returning to London offices in droves on Monday–many for the first time since the pandemic began–said it felt like the “first day of school”.

More than half of companies in the capital have asked staff to spend at least some of their time at their desks from September.

Many employers are expected to ask workers to come in three days a week as they gear up for the “great return” after the summers holidays.

David Gettins (Evening Standard)
David Gettins (Evening Standard)

The managing director of tech recruitment company Lorien, David Gettins, told the Standard: “I’ve got my suit on and it feels like the first day of school. I’ve been coming into the office a little but a lot of my staff have been home working.

“I’m asking them to come in three day a week now and we’re making allowances for child care etc. Staff in London have been really receptive to that. They want that interaction with colleagues face-to-face.”

Accountant Beth Llewellyn added: “We’ve been going in one day a week on a rota system for a little while. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more people being back in the office and seeing all my colleagues properly again.”

Beth Llewellyn (Evening Standard)
Beth Llewellyn (Evening Standard)

Holly Rowden, who works for a Westminster-based environmental think tank, was heading out to Kent for an away day with colleagues this morning.

She started her job last August working from home.

“It was very weird starting in a pandemic,” she said.

“I didn’t meet my boss in person for the first time in person for six months.

“It’s exciting to be going on things like this away day and to be getting back to the office.”

Holly Rowden (Evening Standard)
Holly Rowden (Evening Standard)

Administrator Mina Begum said: “I started six months ago and this is my first time in the office today. It does almost feel like the first day of school because I’ve got my new clothes and shoes on. I didn’t love the earlier start but I think I’m going to enjoy not just wearing leggings and sitting at my living room table.”

Others who have been coming into the offices since restrictions first began being lifted in April, were looking forward to busier work places.

Michelle O’Mahony, who works in market research at London Bridge, said: “I hate working from home so as soon as restrictions were lifted I was back at my desk five days a week. But on a floor of what used to be 400 of us, there has been a merry band of about 20 coming in regularly. I’ve kind of accepted Friday pints have died a death but I’m looking forward to seeing more faces at work.”

However for London’s key workers, including the some 3.3million working in health and social care, it was business as usual.

Olufunmi Fanibe (Evening Standard)
Olufunmi Fanibe (Evening Standard)

Support worker Olufunmi Fanibe has been travelling all over the capital during the pandemic for her job helping teenagers.

She said: “I’ve been travelling to work all over London throughout and there were times where I’d be the only person on the bus. It’s been getting slowly busier. It’s nice to see more people out but I’ll have to get used to the queues again.”

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