Pret a Manger sales plunge to below a third of pre-pandemic levels in the City as bankers and office staff continue to work from home – and MPs warn Boris Johnson ‘end WFH guidance to fire up the economy’
Sandwich bars and cafes in London‘s main business districts are experiencing their worst trading in more than six months, according to a closely watched survey, raising fears about the health of the UK’s wider £15billion grab-and-go industry.
Figures from Bloomberg’s ‘Pret Index’ – named after the popular chain Pret a Manger – show sales at the firm’s stores in the City of London and Canary Wharf fell to below a third of pre-pandemic levels last week.
The figure has been put down to big banks and law firms in the Square Mile asking staff to work from home following Government advice set out last month in a bid to curb the spread of Omicron.
While the index measures transactions at Pret’s stores in major cities across the world, including London’s business districts, it is viewed as a snapshot of the health of the wider cafe and grab-and-go sector.
And it will heap pressure on the Government to review its working from home guidance in the wake of recent analysis showing Omicron is less severe in term of chances of needing hospital care.
Cabinet ministers believe lifting the guidance would ‘help get the economy firing again’ and are already said to be putting pressure on Boris Johnson to end working from home later this month.
Figures from Bloomberg’s ‘Pret Index’ – named after the popular chain Pret a Manger (pictured: Library image) – show sales at the firm’s stores in the City of London and Canary Wharf fell to below a third of pre-pandemic levels last week
While the index measures transactions at Pret’s stores in major cities across the world, including London’s business districts such as Canary Wharf (pictured), it is viewed as a measure of the health of the wider cafe and grab-and-go sector
The figures show that sales in the City of London and Canary Wharf – two important districts for big finance and legal firms – was a third of pre-pandemic levels last week. The index also shows sales in London stations and airports were also around a half of pre-pandemic levels over the same period. But sales in London suburbs were only down by around 10 per cent, a sign experts suggest reflects the shift to more people working from home
The latest figures come from the so-called Pret Index, which business data and media group Bloomberg has been running since January 2020.
The index uses weekly sales data, sent by Pret, of its sales across major international cities such as London, New York, Paris and Hong Kong.
The figure shows that sales in the City of London and Canary Wharf – two important districts for big finance and legal firms – was a third of pre-pandemic levels last week.
Demand for rail travel at just 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, new figures show
Demand for rail travel in Britain was at 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels on Monday, according to provisional Department for Transport figures.
This is up from 38 per cent on Tuesday January 4, the first working day of the previous week in England and Wales.
Over the same period, car use increased from 75 per cent to 82 per cent while bus travel outside London rose from 57 per cent to 68 per cent.
Meanwhile, data from Apple Mobility Data for January shows public transport use is up year-on-year in London.
The data, for route searches between January 11 this year and compared with January 13 last year, when England was in lockdown, shows a 16 per cent increase in public transport usage.
Driving route searches meanwhile were up 8 per cent.
But walking route requests were down 5 per cent – perhaps due to more people having free time in lockdown.
In Manchester, the figures showed a completely different picture.
Walking up was up 49 per cent year-on-year over the same period, while driving was up 17 per cent and public transport up 27 per cent.
That picture was reflected in Birmingham also, where public transport route searches were up 58 per cent, walking was up 36 per cent and driving 19 per cent.
The index also shows sales in London stations and airports were also around a half of pre-pandemic levels over the same period.
But sales in London suburbs were only down by around 10 per cent, a sign experts suggest reflects the shift to more people working from home.
Meanwhile, sales in the West End shopping and entertainment district were less than two-thirds of normal last week.
Analysts at Bloomberg wrote: ‘Although January is typically a quieter month in the West End than December, when London residents and tourists descend on the area for Christmas shopping, Pret saw four consecutive weeks of declines before the holiday season.’
Chief executive of Pret, Pano Christou, said businesses that support office workers are struggling more now than at any time because there is no longer any government support.
He said: ‘Businesses have depleted funds because of the current pandemic so people are in a worse position than they were 18 months ago.’
It comes as ministers are urging the Government to lift working-from-home guidance due to fears that it is damaging the economy.
According to The Times, ministers want Boris Johnson to lift the guidance by the end of the month.
One cabinet minister reportedly told the paper that they believed removing the guidance, introduced on December 13 amid fears over the spread of the Omicron variant, would ‘help get the economy firing’.
This includes the grab-and-go sector, which was forecast to grow to £15billion last year, despite the impact of Covid restrictions and working from home guidance.
One cabinet minister reportedly told the paper: ‘The scientific voices seem to be becoming less doom-laden.
‘If we have to keep wearing facemasks for a bit, then I’m fine with that — ending work-from-home guidance is the important one. It will help get the economy firing.’
It comes as the Prime Minister last week that he hoped Britain would return to something ‘much closer to normality’ by the end of January.
Current restrictions, known as ‘Plan B’, are due to expire on January 26. They are expected to be reviewed by ministers in a fortnight.
Meanwhile, major British firms insisted this week they would bring more employees back into the office if the Government’s policy on working from home changes, as hospitality bosses called for the guidance to end – with one industry source saying trade was ‘as dead as a dodo’.
Pubs, bars and restaurants in city centres have been ‘obliterated’ by the lack of office workers going out for lunches, dinners and drinks after work, with many venues not opening this month due to low customer numbers.
But sources at JP Morgan told MailOnline the bank would bring more of its employees back into the office if the Government changes its guidance – and that attendance at its offices in London and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent, having been at around 50 per cent before Plan B rules came in when many people were on rotations.
Sources at JP Morgan said attendance at its offices in London (pictured in 2013) and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent
KPMG staff are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’
Goldman Sachs has kept its offices in the City of London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes open but continues to ask all staff who can ‘work from home effectively’ to do so, with bosses following Government guidance.
Those continuing to come in to work face a series of in-office health and safety protocols, including a mandatory on-site testing programme and the wearing of masks at all times apart from when seated at their desks.
What are the working from home policies of big companies in Britain?
- Goldman Sachs: Offices in the City of London, Birmingham and Milton Keynes still open for staff but those who can ‘work from home effectively’ are asked to do so, with bosses following Government guidance.
- JP Morgan: The bank will bring more employees back into the office if the Government changes its rules. Staff attendance at its offices in London and Bournemouth is currently at 16 per cent, having been at around 50 per cent before Plan B rules came in.
- HSBC: Staff still being asked to work from home if possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’.
- KMPG: Employees are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’ and it will ‘continue to follow Government advice in relation to the pandemic’.
And HSBC told MailOnline there was no update to its change in guidance for employees last month, which means staff are still being asked to work from home where possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’.
Meanwhile KPMG UK said staff are working from home ‘unless they have a business-critical or exceptional wellbeing reason to be in the office’ and it will ‘continue to follow Government advice in relation to the pandemic’.
The insistence from these major companies that they are following Government guidance on working from home suggests that they would bring back more staff into the office if Ministers recommend that it is safe to do so.
MailOnline has also asked a series of other companies for updates on their WFH guidance – including Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Deloitte, BP, British American Tobacco, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, the London Stock Exchange, London Heathrow Airport, Vodafone, EE, O2 and Merlin Entertainments.
Greater Manchester’s night time economy adviser Sacha Lord said the Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the right call by sparing the country from lockdown in the new year.
He called on him to establish a date when staff will be told to head back to offices. Mr Lord said: ‘It is not just pubs, but lunchtime sandwich shops and any retailer people may have gone out to buy bits from at lunchtime.
‘Hospitality needs people and the high streets need people, and when the work from home policy stops the Government needs to encourage people to get back to offices.
‘Boris did the right thing by not implementing any restrictions, but he must now give us a date to work toward to bring people back.’
The British Beer and Pub Association called for a timeline similar to last year’s roadmap so businesses can prepare for customers coming back.
Chief executive Emma McClarkin said: ‘A lot of operators have closed venues in city centres throughout January because of the Government’s messaging on work from home.
HSBC said its staff are still being asked to work from home where possible ‘unless there is a business reason to come in’
An Apple Mobility chart shows the number of people requesting directions from the Maps app has dropped in recent weeks
Retail spending bounces in December despite spread of Omicron
UK retailers posted strong sales last month as shoppers splashed out on bumper Christmas celebrations despite the surge in Covid-19 cases, according to new figures.
The latest BRC-KPMG retail sales monitor revealed that total sales rose 2.1 per cent in the month to January 1 compared with the same period last year.
It added that like-for-like sales were 0.6 per cent higher than the same month last year. The data highlighted that growth was particularly driven by non-food spending, as shoppers spent more on Christmas gifts.
Over the three months to December, non-food retail grew 4.8 per cent, while food sales reported a 0.4 per cent rise.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: ‘Despite the recent Omicron outbreak, retail sales held up through December. Many people chose to shop online rather than travel to nearby high streets and shopping centres.
‘Loungewear was back in fashion, as many pre-empted the possibility of future restrictions. Meanwhile, the return of work-from-home advice and reduction in Christmas social events caused formalwear sales to slow. In the face of rising case numbers and supply-chain issues, people in retail pulled out all the stops to ensure everyone got what they wanted this Christmas.’
However, the figures also showed a slowdown in activity towards the end of the month.
Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, said: ‘Following a strong November, retail sales continued to grow in December increasing by just over 2 per cent compared to 2020, although the spread of the Omicron variant and updated Government guidelines slowed spending during the final weeks of the year.
‘Consumers continued to head to the high street for their festive gifts, determined to secure the presents they wanted and not leaving online deliveries arriving on time to chance. Footwear was the only online category to see mild growth as overall online sales continued to decline, falling by over 8 per cent in December albeit against strong comparators in 2020.’
‘We need to know when it will come to an end as we are really struggling under the guidance to be viable in towns and city centres.
‘We have also been encouraged by the potential move to a five-day isolation period. We need the message from the Government to change in order to restore consumer confidence.’
Chief executive Kate Nicholls said masks and Covid passports have an ‘end date’ and called for the same for working from home.
She said: ‘We need certainty about how we are going to lift the restrictions and how we are going to go forward and live with this virus.
‘We need to drop the work from home guidance as early as we can, but we need a timeline as well.’
She said hospitality businesses in city centres are seeing sales around 50 per cent lower than would be expected, with the drop off in London a devastating 80 per cent.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the Government to cut England’s Covid isolation period as it emerged that health chiefs misled ministers over the proposal.
School leaders today backed calls to ease the rules as they revealed classes of more than 100 children are being taught in sports halls because of teacher shortages.
Dame Maura Regan, chief executive of Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust, said schools would ‘welcome’ the move to prevent more disruption to pupils’ education.
The backing comes after business chiefs, MPs and even NHS leaders urged No10 to look at following the United States in cutting isolation to five days to ease pressure on the economy and vital services.
But the move was ruled out by the UK Health Security Agency, which claimed that comparisons with US were ‘not like for like’.
Last night it emerged that the quango incorrectly told ministers that the country’s self-isolation period started from the date of a positive test rather than from when symptoms first emerge, as it does in the UK.
Ministers had repeatedly cited the false advice in recent days when explaining why Government was moving so slowly on the issue.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was last night said to be angered by the blunders and Boris Johnson has asked the UKHSA to look again at the change.
In a thinly-veiled dig at the health quango, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said today: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly. But it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing. We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’
The PM’s spokesman revealed the prospect of cutting the period of isolation after testing positive for Covid was not discussed by Cabinet ministers today.
But he said the Government was ‘gathering the latest evidence’.
Covid cases are now falling in EVERY region except the North East
Covid cases are now falling in every region except the North East, according to official figures which add to an ever-growing pile of evidence that the worst of the Omicron outbreak may be over.
UK Health Security Agency statistics show rates in London — which was the first area to fall victim to the highly-transmissible variant — started to trend downwards before Christmas, which sparked hopes that the rest of the nation would soon follow suit.
Now Government Covid data shows cases are finally on their way down in seven out of England’s eight other regions, suggesting the wave may have peaked across much of the country.
Experts are hopeful the Omicron crisis is starting to fizzle out naturally after spiralling to ‘unbelievable’ levels last month.
But there are concerns that the promising trajectory may reverse in the coming days because of schools returning from the Christmas holidays, with infections then spreading back up through the age groups like seen in previous waves.
Despite the confusion over exactly where the country finds itself on the epidemic curve, ministers are facing calls to announce how they intend to live with the virus following almost two years of a never-ending cycle of crippling restrictions.
Deaths have barely risen in England’s most recent wave, and are currently tracking at about half the level of a bad flu year, analysis suggests. The number of critically ill patients in hospital is still flat, despite Omicron first starting to spiral out of control a month ago.
‘We want to keep this under review, make sure we have the right approach, you know we moved from 10 to seven. But what we’re absolutely not doing is prejudging anything.’
A string of other senior ministers are also pushing for the move, including Mr Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The spokesman was also forced to defend UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours.
She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dame Maura said she would in favour of shortening the isolation period.
She revealed some schools have been forced to combine classes and cram up to 120 children into school halls because so many staff are off isolating.
She said: ‘Personally, I’d welcome it, because I think the most important thing is there are many staff that actually have no symptoms, many children that have no symptoms, and I think it’s important to get staff back as quickly as possible.’
It comes after a survey by the NASUWT teaching union found that nearly half of teachers have been forced to cover for colleagues who were off work due to coronavirus as remote learning hit its highest level since lockdown.
Dame Maura told Today that ‘one of the biggest challenges’ currently for schools is ‘effective supply cover’.
She added: ‘I think the most important thing we have to remember is that while it’s significant for all children, it’s particularly significant for those students that are actually facing exams, and many of them have had two, two and a half years, of disruption and to then have a lack of quality teaching is actually greater disruption for them.’
On Monday, Mr Johnson said ministers were considering reducing the self-isolation period from seven to five days for fully vaccinated people who test positive for Covid, with the Health Secretary reportedly backing such a move.
A number of Tory MPs have criticised the UKHSA for its misleading stance on the isolation rules.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘This is yet another example of the bad, exaggerated advice that ministers have been receiving and that has been holding the country back.
Boris Johnson (pictured returning from his morning run today) has asked the UKHSA to look again at cutting isolation to five days
UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours. She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure
‘The difference between five and seven days is critical to maintaining services in hospitals, schools and the economy.’
Former Cabinet minister David Davis said: ‘This demonstrates why scientific advisers have to be very careful about basing their advice on facts rather than pessimistic guesswork.
‘If one of our aims is to protect the health service, sending people home for an unnecessary length of time does not help patients or other health service workers.
‘We need to see the hard data that justifies this, on a more established basis than their inaccurate assertions for the last few weeks.’
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen called for an apology, adding: ‘This mistake has put the NHS and critical industries under severe pressure. It is the sort of basic information which politicians and the British public and employers would expect them to get right.’
On the potential reduction to the self-isolation period, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly but it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing.
‘We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’
Daily Covid cases see biggest fall in Omicron outbreak: UK reports 120,821 new infections in 45% fall in a week as expert says Britain is ‘closest country in northern hemisphere to exiting pandemic’
Daily Covid cases fell by nearly 45 per cent in a week today in the biggest drop since Omicron took off — as an expert claimed the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.
There were 120,821 new positive tests logged across the country over the past 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, down from the pandemic high of 218,000 last Tuesday. It marks the sixth day in a row infections have fallen week-on-week and strongly suggests the fourth wave is subsiding in little over a month.
There is now growing optimism the UK’s outbreak will follow a similar trajectory to South Africa‘s, where the virus has almost completely fizzled out after becoming the Omicron epicentre in November.
Another 379 Covid deaths were also registered across the UK today, up more than seven times on the low figure of 48 last week. Deaths are always artificially higher on Tuesdays due to reporting lags at the weekend but last week’s toll was also affected by the Bank Holiday.
The death rate has remained relatively flat despite Omicron pushing infection rates to record highs, and there are around five times fewer fatalities now than during the second wave last January.
There are growing calls for No10 to learn to live with Covid rather than focus on halting the spread of the virus now there is such a big disconnect between infections and deaths. Final restrictions could start to be lifted this month, it was claimed today.
The promising statistics came as Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), suggested the UK was on the brink of beating the pandemic.
He told an online briefing: ‘In general, now, the countries we know best in the northern hemisphere have varying stages of the pandemic. And probably, in the UK, it’s the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic if it isn’t already out of the pandemic and having the disease as endemic as the other four coronaviruses.’
Last Tuesday included several days of Covid cases in Northern Ireland, which will have made the weekly drop in infections artificially steeper today. But infections were still massively down in England and London.