Coronavirus: London deserted as shops struggle post lockdown

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - At the height of summer, tourists and locals alike normally throng the streets of West London, famed for its high-end department stores, but the legacy of Covid-19 is empty shops and quiet streets.

Not least among those absent are visitors from the Middle East, many of whom normally leave behind the summer heat back home to shop and eat out in more temperate climes.

Newly released data from the New West End Company, a business partnership of 600 businesses in the world’s top shopping destination, warns the area is at risk of a £5 billion (Dh23.1bn) loss in sales.

This could leave more than 50,000 jobs at risk in the usually heaving part of London that includes Oxford Street, Knightsbridge and Mayfair.

Since shops were allowed to reopen in England on June 15, 5.1 million visitors have descended on the West End – a fall of 73 per cent over the same time last year during a season when tourist-magnet London is usually particularly busy.

Overall, footfall in central London is 19 per cent lower than in other UK high streets.

Beauchamp Place at the heart of Kensington is one spot that has been badly hit. The narrow street is packed with shisha bars, Lebanese restaurants and coffee shops but the Middle Eastern customers are at a fraction of past numbers.

At Tessal London, a luxury store that sells traditional and modern Middle Eastern men's clothing, manager Aslan Javid estimates that around 70 per cent of customers come from Arab countries, mainly the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, during trips to London. The other 30 per cent typically are people of South Asian decent living in the UK.

“We are having customers but not those from Gulf countries, we are having Asian customers these days, especially Pakistani or Indian who live here,” he said.

“But it’s not like before Covid. It [was previously] very busy all this area, you can’t even find space for standing especially at 6pm at the beginning of the evening.”

In recent weeks any patrons from the Gulf that stopped in were people in London on business or for medical treatment, not tourism he said.

After shutting in March, Tessal London reopened on June 16 as shops were given the all-clear from the government and has introduced two-metre social distancing rules and has placed limits on the number of customers inside.

“Right now it’s very quiet,” Mr Javid said. Still he remains confident that a pickup is just around the corner – perhaps in “two or three months”.

Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has drawn on his own observations of a lack of people on his commute and said Britain could be in a recession "for a long time" if confidence in using public transport is not restored.

Figures released by the Centre for Cities think tank puts London at the bottom of a high street recovery tracker it has published.

Around the capital are three of the six commuter towns to have witnessed the fastest return to previous levels of activity: Basildon, Chatham and Southend. Local residents are within commuting distance of London but have chosen not to venture in.

Aslan Javid of Tessal London, which says 70 per cent of its customers come from Arab countries. Mark Chilvers for The National 

Calls on the UK government to lay out clear business revival plans are growing. Jace Tyrrell, chief executive at New West End Company, said potential shocks from the UK’s departure from the European Union threatened to fuel the downturn at year end.

“The protection of retail and leisure jobs is our utmost priority, and while the government’s measures take the first step in supporting the West End’s recovery, without consumer confidence to travel and visit; this situation is highly precarious with 50,000 jobs at risk,” he said.

“With no international visitors and mixed messaging surrounding the safety of returning to work and using public transport, we urgently seek clarity of government messaging for our businesses to survive.

“With the UK-EU trade deal deadline also looming, we need to ensure that destinations that rely on international visitors, are accounted for in longer-term recovery plans.”

Offices in London are also virtually empty. A series of contradictory comments from senior ministers over when office workers should return to the workplace has deepened uncertainty.

The Centre for Cities suggests that the number of workers in the London business districts on July 7 was only 15 per cent of what it was on February 27.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that workers should consider working from the office if they could, although these comments are not official policy yet on the government’s website.

Sir George Iacobescu, the chairman of Canary Wharf Group, the company responsible for one of London’s most prominent business districts, is among those calling for a loosening in measures, saying: “By working together with our tenants we can get most people back in and maintain good social distancing.”

Updated: July 16, 2020 07:59 PM

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