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London’s offices are largely empty, like the tills in nearby shops.


Britain’s sparsely populated offices have put the economy in a quandary. The dry cleaners, coffee shops, lunch places and clothing retailers specializing in suits that serve areas packed with offices are starved of their customers.

In a country that relies on consumer spending to fuel economic growth, the government and business lobby are urging people to return to their offices, pressuring civil servants to set an example, and in turn spend more money on food and travel and in city center shops.

“The economy needs to have people back at work,” Dominic Raab, a government minister, said on Sunday.

But the companies charged with responding to this call have discovered that they can function productively with their staff working at home, and many are not in the mood to ask employees to risk getting on crowded trains or buses to return to the office.

The City of London, the financial and legal hub, was the destination for more than half a million daily commuters before the pandemic. At the start of the month, many of the lunch chains were still unlit and locked, and the train stations were significantly quieter — so were the pubs.

“The people are just not coming back,” said Robert Cane, who has worked at a dry cleaners and shoe repair business in the City for the past six years.

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the district’s governing body, said that she was “very concerned” about the lack of foot traffic for the small businesses dependent on office workers, especially in the coming months as government support programs end. The corporation has offered rent holidays and business advice, but “it’s just a conundrum” for those businesses, Ms. McGuinness said.

“I do think there is a major challenge looming about unemployment rates and insolvency rates,” she said.

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