Sandwich bars and cafes in London’s main business districts are experiencing their worst trading in over six months, according to a closely watched survey, raising fears about the health of the UK’s wider £15billion grab-and-go industry.
Figures from Bloomberg’s ‘Pret Index’ – named after the popular chain Pret a Manger – show sales at the firm’s stores in the City of London and Canary Wharf fell to below a third of pre-pandemic levels last week.
Excluding the weeks during Christmas and Easter holidays, when footfall figures are typically smaller, this is the lowest level since March 2021 – when the country was in lockdown.
The figure has been put down to big banks and law firms in the Square Mile asking staff to work from home following Government advice set out last month in a bid to curb the spread of Omicron.
While the index measures transactions at Pret’s stores in major cities across the world, including London’s business districts, it is viewed as a snapshot of the health of the wider cafe and grab-and-go sector.
And it will heap pressure on the Government to review its working from home guidance in the wake of recent analysis showing Omicron is less severe in term of chances of needing hospital care.
Cabinet ministers are already said to be putting pressure on Boris Johnson to end working from home later this month – saying that lifting the guidance would ‘help get the economy firing’.
Figures from Bloomberg’s ‘Pret Index’ – named after the popular chain Pret a Manger (pictured: Library image) – show sales at the firm’s stores in the City of London and Canary Wharf fell to below a third of pre-pandemic levels last week
While the index measures transactions at Pret’s stores in major cities across the world, including London’s business districts such as Canary Wharf (pictured), it is viewed as a measure of the health of the wider cafe and grab-and-go sector
The latest figures come from the so-called Pret Index, which Bloomberg has been running since January 2020.
The index uses weekly sales data, sent by Pret, from its sales across major international cities.
The figure shows that sales in the City of London and Canary Wharf – two important districts for big finance and legal firms – was a third of pre-pandemic levels last week.
Daily Covid cases see biggest fall in Omicron outbreak: UK reports 120,821 new infections in 45% fall in a week as expert says Britain is ‘closest country in northern hemisphere to exiting pandemic’
Daily Covid cases fell by nearly 45 per cent in a week today in the biggest drop since Omicron took off — as an expert claimed the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.
There were 120,821 new positive tests logged across the country over the past 24 hours, according to Government dashboard data, down from the pandemic high of 218,000 last Tuesday. It marks the sixth day in a row infections have fallen week-on-week and strongly suggests the fourth wave is subsiding in little over a month.
There is now growing optimism the UK’s outbreak will follow a similar trajectory to South Africa’s, where the virus has almost completely fizzled out after becoming the Omicron epicentre in November.
Another 379 Covid deaths were also registered across the UK today, up more than seven times on the low figure of 48 last week. Deaths are always artificially higher on Tuesdays due to reporting lags at the weekend but last week’s toll was also affected by the Bank Holiday.
The death rate has remained relatively flat despite Omicron pushing infection rates to record highs, and there are around five times fewer fatalities now than during the second wave last January.
There are growing calls for No10 to learn to live with Covid rather than focus on halting the spread of the virus now there is such a big disconnect between infections and deaths. Final restrictions could start to be lifted this month, it was claimed today.
The promising statistics came as Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), suggested the UK was on the brink of beating the pandemic.
He told an online briefing: ‘In general, now, the countries we know best in the northern hemisphere have varying stages of the pandemic. And probably, in the UK, it’s the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic if it isn’t already out of the pandemic and having the disease as endemic as the other four coronaviruses.’
Last Tuesday included several days of Covid cases in Northern Ireland, which will have made the weekly drop in infections artificially steeper today. But infections were still massively down in England and London.
The index also shows sales in London stations and airports were also around a half of pre-pandemic levels over the same period.
But sales in London suburbs were only down by around 10 per cent, a sign experts suggest reflects the shift to more people working from home.
Sales in the West End shopping and entertainment district meanwhile were less than two-thirds of normal last week.
Analysts at Bloomberg wrote: ‘Although January is typically a quieter month in the West End than December, when London residents and tourists descend on the area for Christmas shopping, Pret saw four consecutive weeks of declines before the holiday season.’
Meanwhile, chief executive of Pret, Pano Christou, said businesses that support office workers are struggling more now than at any time because there is no longer any government support.
He said: ‘Businesses have depleted funds because of the current pandemic so people are in a worse position than they were 18 months ago.’
It comes as ministers are urging the Government to lift working-from-home guidance due to fears that it is damaging the economy.
According to The Times, ministers want Boris Johnson to lift the guidance by the end of the month.
One cabinet minister reportedly told the paper that they believed removing the guidance, introduced on December 13 amid fears over the spread of the Omicron variant, would ‘help get the economy firing’.
This includes the grab-and-go sector, which was forecast to grow to £15billion last year, despite the impact of Covid restrictions and working from home guidance.
One cabinet minister reportedly told the paper: ‘The scientific voices seem to be becoming less doom-laden.
‘If we have to keep wearing facemasks for a bit, then I’m fine with that — ending work-from-home guidance is the important one. It will help get the economy firing.’
It comes as the Prime Minister last week that he hoped Britain would return to something ‘much closer to normality’ by the end of January.
Current restrictions, known as ‘Plan B’, are due to expire on January 26. They are expected to be reviewed by ministers in a fortnight.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the Government to cut England’s Covid isolation period as it emerged that health chiefs misled ministers over the proposal.
School leaders today backed calls to ease the rules as they revealed classes of more than 100 children are being taught in sports halls because of teacher shortages.
Dame Maura Regan, chief executive of Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust, said schools would ‘welcome’ the move to prevent more disruption to pupils’ education.
The backing comes after business chiefs, MPs and even NHS leaders urged No10 to look at following the United States in cutting isolation to five days to ease pressure on the economy and vital services.
But the move was ruled out by the UK Health Security Agency, which claimed that comparisons with US were ‘not like for like’.
Last night it emerged that the quango incorrectly told ministers that the country’s self-isolation period started from the date of a positive test rather than from when symptoms first emerge, as it does in the UK.
Ministers had repeatedly cited the false advice in recent days when explaining why Government was moving so slowly on the issue.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was last night said to be angered by the blunders and Boris Johnson has asked the UKHSA to look again at the change.
In a thinly-veiled dig at the health quango, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said today: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly. But it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing. We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’
Boris Johnson (pictured returning from his morning run today) has asked the UKHSA to look again at cutting isolation to five days
UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours. She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure
The PM’s spokesman revealed the prospect of cutting the period of isolation after testing positive for Covid was not discussed by Cabinet ministers today.
But he said the Government was ‘gathering the latest evidence’.
Covid cases are now falling in EVERY region except the North East
Covid cases are now falling in every region except the North East, according to official figures which add to an ever-growing pile of evidence that the worst of the Omicron outbreak may be over.
UK Health Security Agency statistics show rates in London — which was the first area to fall victim to the highly-transmissible variant — started to trend downwards before Christmas, which sparked hopes that the rest of the nation would soon follow suit.
Now Government Covid data shows cases are finally on their way down in seven out of England’s eight other regions, suggesting the wave may have peaked across much of the country.
Experts are hopeful the Omicron crisis is starting to fizzle out naturally after spiralling to ‘unbelievable’ levels last month.
But there are concerns that the promising trajectory may reverse in the coming days because of schools returning from the Christmas holidays, with infections then spreading back up through the age groups like seen in previous waves.
Despite the confusion over exactly where the country finds itself on the epidemic curve, ministers are facing calls to announce how they intend to live with the virus following almost two years of a never-ending cycle of crippling restrictions.
Deaths have barely risen in England’s most recent wave, and are currently tracking at about half the level of a bad flu year, analysis suggests. The number of critically ill patients in hospital is still flat, despite Omicron first starting to spiral out of control a month ago.
‘We want to keep this under review, make sure we have the right approach, you know we moved from 10 to seven. But what we’re absolutely not doing is prejudging anything.’
A string of other senior ministers are also pushing for the move, including Mr Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The spokesman was also forced to defend UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours.
She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dame Maura said she would in favour of shortening the isolation period.
She revealed some schools have been forced to combine classes and cram up to 120 children into school halls because so many staff are off isolating.
She said: ‘Personally, I’d welcome it, because I think the most important thing is there are many staff that actually have no symptoms, many children that have no symptoms, and I think it’s important to get staff back as quickly as possible.’
It comes after a survey by the NASUWT teaching union found that nearly half of teachers have been forced to cover for colleagues who were off work due to coronavirus as remote learning hit its highest level since lockdown.
Dame Maura told Today that ‘one of the biggest challenges’ currently for schools is ‘effective supply cover’.
She added: ‘I think the most important thing we have to remember is that while it’s significant for all children, it’s particularly significant for those students that are actually facing exams, and many of them have had two, two and a half years, of disruption and to then have a lack of quality teaching is actually greater disruption for them.’
On Monday, Mr Johnson said ministers were considering reducing the self-isolation period from seven to five days for fully vaccinated people who test positive for Covid, with the Health Secretary reportedly backing such a move.
A number of Tory MPs have criticised the UKHSA for its misleading stance on the isolation rules.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘This is yet another example of the bad, exaggerated advice that ministers have been receiving and that has been holding the country back.
‘The difference between five and seven days is critical to maintaining services in hospitals, schools and the economy.’
Former Cabinet minister David Davis said: ‘This demonstrates why scientific advisers have to be very careful about basing their advice on facts rather than pessimistic guesswork.
‘If one of our aims is to protect the health service, sending people home for an unnecessary length of time does not help patients or other health service workers.
‘We need to see the hard data that justifies this, on a more established basis than their inaccurate assertions for the last few weeks.’
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen called for an apology, adding: ‘This mistake has put the NHS and critical industries under severe pressure. It is the sort of basic information which politicians and the British public and employers would expect them to get right.’
On the potential reduction to the self-isolation period, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly but it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing.
‘We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’