In the north-west many businesses are yet to notice a jump in trade, but in the capital it feels much busier
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Last modified on Mon 6 Sep 2021 14.00 EDT
Before the pandemic, the queues outside Café Istanbul in Manchester city centre would be out of the door. Eighteen months later, business is still quiet. “Even now, with people returning to the office, it is not like what it was before,” said Muzaffer Karanal, head chef at one of the city’s oldest independent restaurants.
As pupils return to school and offices slowly reopen, most businesses around the city centre have not had the mass return of customers they were hoping for after Covid measures were lifted. Karanal is hoping that the easing of travel restrictions will result in the return of packed lunchtimes during which his restaurant “never stopped”.
“We get a lot of tourists from the Middle East visiting us, though because of the red list, not many are able to come and so it is especially quiet,” said the restuarant’s manager, Kadri Korkut.
According to Bruntwood, one of Manchester’s main commercial property companies, footfall was likely to be about 75% of pre-pandemic levels this week, with an overwhelming majority of customers having returned to the office for either full-time or hybrid working.
“This is already a big jump from last week when footfall in our buildings was around 50% of pre-pandemic levels,” said a spokesperson for the firm. Commuters were also returning – Metrolink, Manchester’s tram service, recorded 15% more contactless taps in the morning than the previous week.
Many Manchester businesses that rely on busy city centres for trade have yet to notice the jump.
“People are coming back into offices this week but it is nowhere near what it was like before,” said Emma Loat, the co-manager of Forsyths music shop on Deansgate. The store still has furloughed staff and is opening for fewer hours than before Covid.
“We are in the city centre and so we have a lot of office worker lunchtime trade,” said Loat. “This is where people come to browse or pick their daughter’s clarinet music, for example. That has all disappeared.”
Darren Smith, the manager of a branch of Timpson cobblers, said it was also suffering from a lack of lunchtime customers. “I usually get workers coming in during their lunch break to get their keys cut,” he said. “Since last week, it is slowly coming back compared to a few weeks ago, when it was completely dead.”
Smith said hybrid working has had a particular impact and trade was still at less than half of pre-pandemic levels, adding: “We aren’t even doing half of what we were doing before the pandemic.
“It’s easy for me to tell what days people are in the office, as it is usually those days when we are a little more busy,” he said. “Though this is not consistent. Before the pandemic, we were super-busy during the afternoon.
‘It feels almost normal’ in London
In east London, by contrast, things were much busier. The financial district of Canary Wharf appeared by lunchtime to have burst back into life after a long hibernation.
Small groups of suited colleagues walked through the area’s plazas and shopping malls, excitedly greeting each other or queueing at the many food and drink outlets.
The vast majority of those enjoying a burst of sunshine on the private estate, owned by the Canary Wharf Group and usually home to 120,000 workers at large corporate companies – including banks, law firms, financial companies and professional firms – looked to be dressed for a day at their desks rather than a shopping outing.
“It feels like the first day back at school,” said Ines Teixeira, 23, eating lunch in a park with Holly White, a fellow trainee at law firm Clifford Chance. “We’ve been in for a few days, but this is the proper day back.”
After a year working for the company remotely, White, 23, was enjoying meeting other colleagues and her supervisors. “It’s a lot easier being surrounded by people, even watching what they do,” she said.
Kamer, an employee at US bank Morgan Stanley who was waiting to meet a colleague, was struck by how busy the area was, on a day billed as the watershed moment for the return of office workers.
“I was here two or three weeks ago, and it was kind of deserted,” he said. “Today it feels almost normal.”
Kamer, who did not want to give his surname, added: “I was glad to get dressed, take the train and bike and get to my desk. I’m buying lunch, the economy is flowing, it’s good for everyone. I don’t think we are designed to just be in a house or a flat.”
Apart from a smattering of people wearing face masks inside the malls, the district seemed to resemble life before the pandemic.
More businesses appeared to have heeded the call to bring employees back to their headquarters than during the short-lived return last September.
As the lunchtime rush subsided, John Moore was catching his breath from serving at Rudie’s Jerk Shack, which opened for the first time in March.
He had noticed more people buying food in person between 11.30am and 2pm on Monday. “Today is busy,” Moore said. “Lots of people have come saying they are back at work today.”
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