A near-deserted Millennium Bridge over the Thames as lockdown begins again in the City of London © Niklas Hallen/AFP/Getty

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When Britain’s oldest brewer closed the doors of its 15 City of London pubs after a last hurrah for drinkers on Wednesday night, most of the landlords had no idea when they would open again.

Several of these pubs will never emerge from the second national lockdown, according to Shepherd Neame boss, Jonathan Neame — victims of new restrictions that have again sent home thousands of workers who would normally be gearing up for the traditional pre-Christmas City drinks circuit.

Many of the others may not open again this year regardless of whether the England lockdown ends as expected on December 2, he added.

The surrounding office towers emptied rapidly on Wednesday evening, with some now also likely to be mothballed until the new year.

The lockdown is a brutal reversal for businesses just as life was beginning to be restored to City streets.

Government guidance to reopen offices in the summer to revive the economy had brought hopes of a return to normality in the City’s Square Mile. Many companies were bringing as many staff as they could back to the office. 

Empty streets around the Bank of England © Dan Kitwood/Getty

“In September, the message was go back to the City, go back to work,” said Mr Neame. “There was definitely momentum. But many have now said don’t come at all for the rest of the year. It’s very difficult to see the City recovering any time soon.”

On Monday, staff at the London headquarters of Deutsche Bank arrived to find multicoloured balloons on their trading floor — intended, said one banker, “to boost morale as we go into another depressing quarantine”.

The bank will review whether workers will come back after the lockdown, raising concerns among staff that the lender — like other financial firms in the Square Mile such as NatWest — has now written this year off for any comprehensive return to the office.

A memo from Tiina Lee, UK chief executive at Deutsche Bank, seen by the Financial Times, said the bank would “substantially reduce the numbers of colleagues working from the office, in line with our approach from March/April, through until at least December 2”.

Catherine McGuinness, chair of policy at the City of London Corporation, which governs the financial district, warned of “a bleak winter”. She said: “People have been steadily coming back to the City but this plateaued in September and will now drop off.”

Charts showing that staff in London have avoided a return to the office

By Thursday morning, after the restrictions had come into effect, the City’s foggy streets were deserted, with shops, restaurants, gyms and bars ordered shut. Chains are keeping most outlets open for takeaways even with fewer customers to serve from nearby offices, although Pret A Manger is among those cutting back, with plans to shut about seven City outlets.

More than a third of JPMorgan’s 12,000 London staff had returned to work at Canary Wharf after the end of the spring lockdown, with numbers ramping up as restrictions eased in September. By last week, half of its M&A and trading teams were regularly back in the office, but now the bank said that only “essential” traders and senior staff should return from Thursday

One managing director said he was “devastated” by the reversal because a “real camaraderie” had developed between the skeleton staff who were still able to make it into the office.

After months at home, his team were so much happier and more productive working face to face and the juniors felt the benefits the most. “The bank told us they’ll review it at the start of December, but we are not hopeful to be back in before Christmas,” he added.

© Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE

Only around 350 HSBC staff out of the 10,000 that typically work in Canary Wharf will return on Friday morning.

Accountants and law firms, which had been easing workers back into their offices, have followed suit. 

During October, PwC had about 5,000 people coming into one of its offices for one day or more every week but now, until 2 December, all will return to working from home as the default position unless there is a critical or personal need for them to travel in.

If there was one saving grace, said bankers and accountants, it was the ease of the switch compared with the spring, with ways of remote working now well established. Many firms had only brought back a small number of staff and had been operating hybrid models of office and homeworking.

Some are already planning more permanent changes. Asia-focused bank Standard Chartered, which has 85,000 global employees and has its headquarters in London, said on Thursday that it would offer permanent “flexi-working arrangements” to 90 per cent of its staff within three years, after an employee survey found an overwhelming response in favour.

“While we have been thinking through the issues around future workplace for some time, it’s inevitable that recent events provided a catalyst,” said human resources head Tanuj Kapilashrami.

Tube travel has been hit in the City

Ms McGuinness said her deepest concerns were for those in “support business” in retail and hospitality.

The latest lockdown represents more than just a four-week break for many businesses that serve the area, coming after a bruising six months where trade was only just beginning to return from previous restrictions.

Christmas is one of the peak times for the Square Mile’s pubs as bankers, insurers, lawyers and accountants take out clients on expenses, and bosses put credit cards behind bars for staff parties. Instead, businesses are cancelling parties in bars and venues around the City, moving to Zoom drinks and Christmas quizzes. 

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“Christmas is a hugely important time of the year,” said Mr Neame, with as much as a fifth of sales from the festive period. Half the staff in his City pubs are being made redundant, with the rest on furlough.

Ms McGuinness said the City of London was working on securing a long-term future for the area — developing proposals that would seek to adapt the Square Mile to new working practices, such as more flexible office developments to make sure people would want to return. 

But she is confident the City will get through the pandemic without lasting harm. “We have survived plague and fires. People will always want offices but they will use them in different ways.”

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