Proof that Covid cowardice is killing a nation of shopkeepers

Dean Hooke can hardly hide his delight. A tall man dressed in a striped shirt, chinos and straw hat enters his tailor’s shop in Bank, central London, at noon. 

It’s his first customer of the day. ‘Some days, we don’t get anyone coming in,’ Dean says. ‘At the moment, it’s normally one or two. Four is the maximum we’ve had since reopening.’ 

There has been a tailor’s shop at 13 St Swithin’s Lane since 1915. It has survived two world wars and 20 prime ministers. But Boris Johnson, the 21st, could be its last. The reason is simple: the City’s offices remain empty. 

Empty: Dean Hooke (pictured)  from John W. Hooke & Son in central London says some days he doesn't get a single customer

Empty: Dean Hooke (pictured)  from John W. Hooke & Son in central London says some days he doesn't get a single customer

Empty: Dean Hooke (pictured)  from John W. Hooke & Son in central London says some days he doesn’t get a single customer

Dean, whose family took over in 1977, says office workers account for at least 80 per cent of the customers at his firm John W. Hooke & Son. It’s no coincidence that his takings are down by the same margin on their pre-pandemic levels. 

‘We’ve been through at least three recessions,’ he says. ‘My dad borrowed around £6,000 from a customer to take over the business because, in ’77, banks weren’t lending much. 

‘He brought old customers from where he used to work, and now I’m doing their grandkids. We battled through, but there were people around, unlike now.’ 

A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that 48 per cent of people commuted to work the week before last, up from 29 per cent towards the end of May. 

But the UK still lags behind the rest of Europe, where an average of 68 per cent of workers have returned to their offices, according to U.S. bank Morgan Stanley. It has left family businesses struggling for survival in city centres across Britain. 

One in ten firms say they are at risk of going under, according to the ONS, while research by the Centre for Cities think tank published last week showed the recovery in footfall since non-essential shops reopened had been weakest in big cities where offices were concentrated. 

It warned that shops, restaurants and pubs are at risk if office workers continue to stay away. 

Smaller firms are not being helped by their corporate cousins. City giants PwC and Schroders have already said they will allow staff to work from home beyond the pandemic, while banks NatWest and Virgin Money don’t expect staff to return until next year. 

Dean, 51, says the Government must do more. ‘We need them to tell people,’ he says. ‘They’ve been too wishy washy. People wanted them to say ‘do this, do that’, not ‘oh, it’s up to you’. 

‘If trade remains at this level, I’ve got to decide whether it’s profitable to keep the shop running.’

IF WORKERS DON’T RETURN, WE’RE DONE 

Whitehall staff have been sluggish, too. Earlier this month, a Mail investigation revealed only a fraction of workers were turning up at ministerial offices. Just 94 employees were seen arriving at the vast Home Office headquarters on August 3. 

Anna Alam, 28, who has worked at nearby Whistles Dry Cleaners for nine years, says the lack of urgency could be terminal. ‘All of these are from before lockdown,’ she says, pointing to the suits hanging behind her. 

‘My customers, mostly from the Home Office, have been telling me they don’t have to come back into the office until December and have been asking me not to throw their suits out. For me, that means no new business until next year. 

‘Around 70 per cent of our customers work for the Government. But its offices are empty. I like my job very much and I want to keep it but, if this carries on, everything my boss has worked hard to establish over 20 years will be lost.’ 

Only one family is in for lunch at Pickles Sandwich Bar, which itself is sandwiched between the National Crime Agency opposite and HM Treasury behind it on Horse Guards Parade. Owner Hegazy Saada, 63, says there is normally a queue halfway out the door. ‘We are doing about 20 to 30 per cent of our usual business,’ he says. ‘If people don’t go back to their offices, small businesses are finished.’ 

Empty: Colin Gregory normally has lunch-time queues snaking out of the building

Empty: Colin Gregory normally has lunch-time queues snaking out of the building

Empty: Colin Gregory normally has lunch-time queues snaking out of the building

‘ONE MONDAY WE TOOK JUST £70’ 

Colin Gregory, co-owner of the food outlet Feast, which has two branches — one not far from Sheffield Crown Court and another around the corner from the Crucible Theatre — says: ‘If people don’t come back to work, there’s no place for us. These customers are our livelihood.’ 

Mr Gregory, 58, who looks after the branch near the law courts, normally has lunch-time queues snaking out of the building. 

But trade has been so slow that the Monday before last he took only £70, down from an average of between £500 to £600. He and his business partner both used their houses as collateral for leases on their cafes and face a grim future unless business recovers. 

Colin says: ‘We can’t even pay the rent. If we can’t pay, they are going to get the money from our homes. ‘We’ve been in business for 13 years and had this unit for about five years. Until the virus, it’s never been anything other than a great success. But if the office workers don’t come back to work, we’re off.’

Many of them are still in hibernation. Papa Bruno, a cafe opposite the Home Office, remains closed until September 7. 

Cafe Fresco, across the road from the Department for Work and Pensions — where only 33 employees were seen arriving for work on August 3 — is still boarded up. 

So, too, is Cafe Ravioli, opposite the Department for Transport. 

A Government spokesman says: ‘We are consulting closely with employees on ending the default that civil servants should work from home and have ensured workplaces are Covid-secure, so civil servants can return safely.’

FEARS CITY CENTRES WILL STAY DESERTED

It’s not just the capital that is suffering. In Sheffield, South Yorkshire, the city centre is normally teeming with tens of thousands of office workers employed by government departments, major banks including HSBC and RBS, accountants, law firms and technology companies. 

But when the Mail visited earlier this month, streets remained deserted as few have returned to work — and some businesses say trade has fallen by 90 per cent. 

The Fig Tree, one of Sheffield’s oldest cafes dating back to 1975, is struggling as its normal clientele of lawyers and accountants stay away. 

The situation is compounded by the Eat Out to Help Out offer — giving customers up to 50 per cent off food and non-alcoholic drinks, up to a maximum of £10 per person, Monday to Wednesday this month — which it cannot join because social distancing means it can only operate as a takeaway. 

Owner Mark Hindmarsh, 37, says: ‘People returning to work in the offices is massively important. When we reopened in the last week of June it was particularly horrendous. We were down to just a quarter of what we were doing pre-lockdown. It’s recovered to about half of normal trade now. 

‘The return to school is a week or so away. A lot hinges on that.’ 

In Manchester, local businesses that normally cater for hordes of workers are trying new ideas rather than waiting forlornly for their return. But others have postponed reopening, closed completely or laid off staff. 

In the Barton Arcade, an ornate Victorian iron and glass shopping arcade off Deansgate, the coffee shop Pot Kettle Black is bouncing back better than expected due to its mix of shoppers, tourists and workers. 

But owner Jon Wilkin, 36, says he has had to close another branch, at Spinningfields, a prestige office development near Manchester’s main law courts, because office workers are staying away. 

Shutting down: Jon Wilkin of Pot Kettle Black in Manchester has had to close one of his branches

Shutting down: Jon Wilkin of Pot Kettle Black in Manchester has had to close one of his branches

Shutting down: Jon Wilkin of Pot Kettle Black in Manchester has had to close one of his branches

Mr Wilkin, who has played Rugby League for England, adds: ‘We were in a building that went from 2,500 people working there each day to 200. We catered for those people. We put £100,000 into it — that’s gone.’ 

Others fear many workers will never return. George Constantino, 43, owns Katsouris Greek cafe and takeaway on the corner of main thoroughfares Deansgate and John Dalton Street. 

He believes firms will downsize and do away with big offices. ‘Nearby, three or four shops haven’t reopened after lockdown,’ he adds. ‘If you have three or four empty units in a row, the whole area becomes unattractive. This is obviously a huge concern.’ 

Mr Constantino, whose business opened 15 years ago, said trade is currently 50 to 60 per cent of pre-lockdown levels, but he has not had to lay off any staff. 

He adds: ‘At the start of each week, we keep hoping there will be more people. We’re trying different things to attract customers. ‘I’m working on a new menu and we’re going to start opening Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, too. We’re hoping to get more residential customers.’

WE ONLY HAVE MONTHS LEFT

The Government says it is up to individual companies to decide when and how to bring back staff. 

But senior Tories have urged the Prime Minister to highlight the need for white collar workers to get back to their desks. 

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith believes the Government ‘must stop equivocating’. 

‘The messaging has to change and it has to be clear,’ he adds. ‘We should be encouraging people to go to work. It’s vital that we get the economy moving now.’ 

‘The offices that are open provide the cash for small businesses and they employ the vast majority of British workers. For goodness’ sake, let’s get back to work.’ 

Views are split among businesses, too. Alex Astbury, 26, has worked at Sixteen Kitchen near Birmingham New Street train station for two-and-a-half years. 

Drop: Alex Astbury from Sixteen Kitchen in Birmingham says business is down by around 75 per cent

Drop: Alex Astbury from Sixteen Kitchen in Birmingham says business is down by around 75 per cent

Drop: Alex Astbury from Sixteen Kitchen in Birmingham says business is down by around 75 per cent

He says business is down by around 75 per cent due to the lack of commuters and he fears small businesses won’t last ‘if this is the new normal’. 

But he believes workers shouldn’t be cajoled back against their will. ‘It’s difficult to say whether the Government should enforce people coming into work more,’ he adds. ‘It’s what people feel comfortable doing that is important. Do I like having people coming in? Sure, but I wouldn’t want them to feel unsafe.’ 

But time is running out, even for those who cater to the great and the good. Sayed Hashemi has run Top Tailor in Birmingham for seven years and counts mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street as a customer. Sayed says turnover is down by 90 per cent as ‘nearly all’ his customers are office workers. 

Sayed, 37, says Mr Street is one of the few visitors he still receives. ‘He comes in all the time,’ Sayed adds. ‘He talks to us and offers his help quite a lot. One of his jackets is in the shop for dry cleaning. 

‘He tells us he thinks things will be back to normal by October/ November time, but we are sitting here waiting for that to happen.

‘If people stay working at home, we will have to close the shop permanently. I would say we have two to three months left.’ 

Additional reporting: ALEX WARD

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