Bank of England warns mass return to UK offices ‘not possible’

The Bank of England has undermined the government’s drive to get workers back to offices, after a senior official warned it was impossible for large numbers of staff to return to central London and other big cities while risks from Covid-19 remained.

Pouring cold water on the government campaign, Alex Brazier, the Bank’s executive director for financial stability strategy and risk, said it was “not possible” for a mass return to city centre offices across Britain this autumn due to Covid guidelines, concerns over the health risks, and transport capacity issues.

“With Covid safe guidelines, it’s not possible to use office space – particularly in central London and dense places like that – with the intensity that we used to use it. So it’s actually not possible to bring lots of people back very suddenly,” he said.

Speaking to MPs on the Commons Treasury committee, the senior Bank official, who is responsible for regulating some of the City of London’s biggest employers, said it would take several months for firms to bring back staff and that it would depend on the risks from Covid-19.

“Because of those constraints I don’t think we can expect to see a sudden and sharp return of lots of people to the very dense office environments that we were used to. We should expect a more phased return depending on the public health outcomes that we’ll see over the coming weeks and months.”

The comments come as Boris Johnson’s government pushes to get more people back to offices across the country, amid signs that activity in city centres is still sharply down on pre-pandemic levels – threatening the livelihoods of workers and businesses reliant on office-based staff and commuters.

Brazier, one of the Bank’s most senior officials responsible for the stability of the UK banking system, said he personally felt safe returning to its offices in the City, but that he understood why many people might not.

Threadneedle Street plays a pivotal role as the regulator to City banks, which include some of the biggest firms in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf where thousands of people would normally work in skyscrapers.

Colette Bowe, a member of the Bank’s financial policy committee, said children returning to schools had also been a major issue for getting workers back to offices. “[Parents] have to feel their children are being properly cared for, that their children’s education is being taken care of.”

Four of the Bank’s five witnesses speaking before the Treasury committee, including its governor, Andrew Bailey, were appearing via video link from its 18th-century central London headquarters. “We are, as it happens, back in the centre of London but not everybody feels like that,” Bowe said.