At about 1pm in Paternoster Square on Monday, four placid, Christmassy eyes gazed at the trickle of workers emerging from the London Stock Exchange in search of lunch. “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE REINDEER,” a sign on the enclosure said. “THIS IS TO PREVENT THE TRANSMISSION OF CORONAVIRUS.”
“I remember when you could stroke them,” said a passing trader. “It’s so depressing. I wish I’d stayed at home now.”
Although a small crowd had gathered around the main attraction of the square’s Christmas market, the vast majority of workers in the area were at home on Monday, in line with the new official advice: “Work from home if you can.”
That phrasing sounds softer than last year’s instruction that “everyone must work from home unless they are unable to do so” – leading some banks and brokerages to take a less stringent line than they have in the past. Many say workers can come in if they wish to. PwC, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, and KPMG were among those reported last week to be keeping their offices open. Even so, the City still felt roughly as sleepy as those reindeer.
That would appear to be in line with data from Transport for London, which said passenger journeys during the morning peak were down by just under 20% on the previous week – and still drastically down on pre-pandemic levels, at about 46% of the old normal.
Harry, who is on a placement at Bank of America, said that his nearby office was much quieter than usual – four people on his floor as opposed to “a couple of dozen” last Monday – and staff had been told they were to decide whether they would prefer to work from home or the office.
“My manager and I decided we still wanted to be coming in,” said Harry – who, like many of the junior City workers approached by the Guardian, asked to use a pseudonym. “At the start of my placement I was working from home full-time and, while it was nice, I definitely didn’t get to make the kind of connections you need.”
Cautious about the risk of bringing the virus with him if he were to leave London at Christmas, he is sacrificing his usual trip home this year. “You just want to be careful,” he said.
Paul Chapman, a managing director at Tysers insurance brokers, said his company was “desperate to do the right thing”. He added: “We’re very keen not to ruin anybody’s Christmas.” He said that approach was typical across the City.
At the same time, Chapman said, he saw inconsistencies in the government’s advice. “I went to the theatre, and it was absolutely rammed. I was in the Ned [a hotel and members’ club] last night and it was absolutely rammed. And yet the train is empty, and the City was empty this morning.”
In Canary Wharf, most lunch stalls said they had seen a significant drop-off, with several saying they were at about 20% of their usual trade. “Normally by 1pm we’d have about £500,” said Catarina Ferreira, working at Rudie’s Jerk Shack. “Today it’s £98. It’s easily the worst day for three months.”
David, vaping outside Citibank in the rain, said his office was “a good bit quieter”. He said the company’s advice had been “basically, keep going as you are – if you want to work from home you can do that, if you need to work from the office or you want to because it helps with your mental health, you can do that”.
Citibank confirmed that was its approach, noting that it required staff to take a lateral flow test three times a week. Asked whether he felt the advice from the government had been sufficiently clear, David said firmly: “I don’t think I need clarity from the government about what I should be doing. I think I’m an adult.”
That robust view – perhaps representative of a wider and unsurprising distaste for state intervention among the City’s enthusiastic capitalists – was echoed by Nila, on her way back to HSBC. “I’m so tired of politicians telling us what we should be doing,” she said.
Others took a more critical view of the government’s approach, arguing that official advice without help for small businesses that were affected by the loss of commuter footfall was unfair. “I find it sad,” said Nicola Bowyer, who works at a printing company near the Bank of England. “I just feel for the sandwich bars and restaurants. They get no support. It’s crap, isn’t it?”
Her enthusiasm for any further imposition of new rules would be significantly dampened by the messengers, she added. “I’m so over it,” she said. “I just think, I’m sorry, but why should we listen to what these idiots tell us? I shall be doing what I want to. Within reason.”