City of London seeks confidence in transport to refill offices

LONDON (Reuters) – Workers in the City of London need to have greater confidence that travelling on the capital’s public transport system is safe before they will return to their offices amid “mixed messages” from officials, financial industry representatives said.

More than 80% of workers in the London’s financial heartland commuted by public transport before the coronavirus crisis brought the city to a standstill and capacity is now severely restricted as a result of efforts to curb the outbreak.

And although many employees in banks, insurers and asset managers have been working at home since March when a lockdown to fight the coronavirus was imposed, there were concerns among regulators about potential long-term dangers.

Staff working from their bedrooms or kitchens make it harder for their employers and regulators to check if they are complying with rules such as not using private phones or email to contact clients.

And while some staff have begun returning to the deserted skyscrapers that normally house some of the biggest financial players in the world, there has not been a rush to do so since the lifting of lockdown in England.

“People are not worried about the office, they are worried about how they are going to get there,” Shobi Khan, chief executive of Canary Wharf Group that runs the financial district in London’s former docklands, told a City & Financial event.

“There is no problem going to Spain, Italy or France, but heaven forbid you go to the office,” Khan said, adding that the official line is work from home and stay off public transport.

Catherine McGuinness, political leader of the City of London that runs the traditional financial district known as the Square Mile, said more confidence in public transport was needed.

“We need more clarity on the advice we are receiving,” McGuinness said, adding that she expects more people to return in September and increase gradually thereafter, a view echoed by Khan, who said this would coincide with school holidays ending.

“There is a big push from a lot of corporates to have another flow of workers come back in September to see how that works and then each business will decide what that right level is,” Khan told Thursday’s online event.

But while relaxing the social distance rule from two metres to one metre allows an underground train to accommodate more people, it was still limited at 208 people, said Ron Kalifa, board member of Transport for London.

“It’s not going to go back to exactly how it was before, and that is probably true of the longer term as well as the short term,” McGuinness said.

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