The sepulchral gloom suddenly starts to lift as I walk along Gracechurch Street. From round the corner comes a strange, exciting sound seldom heard in the City of London in recent months: laughter, raised voices, the clinking of glasses.
I turn into Leadenhall Market and there it is — an after-work pub crowd spilling out on to the pavement in full cry.
‘It’s our first day back in and I’m loving it. We’re all just buzzing to be back,’ says recruitment consultant Summer Pound, 23. Her colleague Myles Witchard, 31, agrees. ‘I know people will say they are working just as well at home. All I can say is this has been my first day back at my desk and I’ve just had the best day’s results in months.’
They are among a group of six colleagues who have joined other drinkers at the New Moon pub to celebrate the return.
A worker wearing a face covering, puts away chairs as they prepare to close a Pret-a-Manger store in London on August 12 in London
A pedestrian wears walks past shuttered shop fronts on an empty shopping street in London on August 12
And whereas the first day back in the office at the end of August might once have brought on that back-to-school sinking feeling, it’s the very opposite this time.
‘It just feels great to be seeing people face-to-face again,’ says Summer, who lives in Surrey. ‘I did wonder how I’d feel about the commute. But once I was on the train, it was fine.’
And therein lies the challenge confronting the Government and the entire British economy: how do you get a nervous workforce to take that initial leap of faith? No one likes to say it, let alone admit it. But the greatest obstacle to economic revival right now, quite simply, is fear itself.
Like swimmers standing on the edge of a cold-water pool — or a patient taking the first post-operative steps into the outside world — Britain needs to brace itself and get on with it. Millions of white-collar workers still cling to the narrative that ‘we’re just as efficient working at home’.
An empty tube carriage rides along the Northern line in London, on August 14 as commuters work from home
It may be true in some cases. However, in many others, it is code for two unspoken truths: ‘I am worried about a stranger coughing’ and ‘I dislike commuting.’
It is understandable. But we have to accept that time is up.
This week, the head of the employers’ federation, the CBI, warned of ‘ghost towns’ in once-bustling urban centres.
Writing in the Mail, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn argued that thousands of local businesses — from sandwich bars to dry cleaners — are at risk from the stay-at-home mentality. To which the pyjama-clad Coronaphobes retort: ‘Why must we trek in to the metropolis just to prop up some greedy rail franchise and keep Pret A Manger afloat?’
However, Dame Carolyn made other crucial points. Without some sort of return to office life, younger staff are never going to improve, learn and progress. Furthermore, we are in danger of creating a schism between the stay-at-homes and the no-choicers.
Those who work in retail or factories or transport or (as of next week) education, do not have the option of working from a deckchair. Some may be overweight or at the older end of the spectrum. They may have family members with underlying health issues. But what else can they do? And over time, this could become a deeply corrosive divide.
Writing in the Mail, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn (pictured) argued that thousands of local businesses — from sandwich bars to dry cleaners — are at risk from the stay-at-home mentality. To which the pyjama-clad Coronaphobes retort: ‘Why must we trek in to the metropolis just to prop up some greedy rail franchise and keep Pret A Manger afloat?’
And that is why the Government has to be clear and forceful. As the former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned this week, Britain is ‘in the foothills of economic Armageddon’.
His fellow senior Tory, Sir Graham Brady, was in no doubt: ‘We have to stop the mixed messaging and send out a clear signal that it is safe to go back to work.’
That means leading by example. And right now, the state is doing nothing of the sort. The vast ministries around Whitehall lie virtually empty while public servants — for whom wage cuts and furlough schemes are an alien concept — insist they are ‘delivering’ from their sofas. If they won’t take the plunge, why should anyone else?
We don’t need all of them back all of the time, of course.
But there has to be a balance, for Heaven’s sake.
It is telling that some of the places which have shown the greatest propensity to get back to work are in so called ‘red wall’ areas, those former Labour heartlands which have turned their back on decades of socialism and now vote Tory.
New mobile phone data suggests that Mansfield in Nottinghamshire is the keenest with 40 per cent of people back at their desks. And the worst of the lot? Unsurprisingly, it is London where just 13 per cent are in the office.
The residential suburbs might be showing signs of life.
Yet in the two main white-collar hubs — Westminster for the public sector and the City plus Canary Wharf for commerce — it’s still just tumbleweed.
As a result, Britain now languishes behind most of Europe when it comes to going back to work. I have spent this week wondering why. We all have our anecdotal evidence.
Passing through Gatwick Airport recently, I was struck by how few people were willing to touch a trolley. I have met Londoners who will travel by black cab, because there is a screen between front and back, but not in a minicab.
Passing through Gatwick Airport (pictured) recently, I was struck by how few people were willing to touch a trolley. I have met Londoners who will travel by black cab, because there is a screen between front and back, but not in a minicab
The Suffolk-based writer, Olinda Adeane, has been observing the behavioural shifts in just one corner of East Anglia.
Aside from the flood of urban runaways snapping up every new property on the market, she knows of two villagers who have been putting their own homes in quarantine.
Each time the cleaning lady visits one house, the owner decamps to the friend’s house for three days — and vice versa — until the risk of lingering virus has passed.
The village shop, meanwhile, is doing a roaring trade despite a ‘no entry’ policy.
Locals come to a long table protruding from the door, shout out their shopping list and then wait for their groceries to be pushed down the table with a broom handle like gambling chips in a casino. ‘People are much happier doing this than going to Asda,’ says Olinda.
Individually, these snapshots of mild paranoia are rather amusing. Collectively, they paint a picture of a nation which has simply got to get a grip.
We hear a great deal about herd immunity but we are also witnessing classic herd behaviour.
Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College, London and New York’s Columbia University, suggests that Britain is particularly susceptible. He points to the way in which homogeneous British high streets tend to be overrun by the same chains and the same brands, more so than many other Western societies.
‘Britain has a healthy tradition of being sceptical about what it is buying. It’s a trust issue.
‘So people find a certain level of comfort in shops like John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. They feel more comfortable. And they find comfort in doing what most other people are doing.’
He believes that as some people start going back to work, others may start to feel disadvantaged by working from home. ‘If you have a business saying ‘you can work wherever you want’ but you have a micro-managing boss who is in the office, then people may feel pressure to come in.’
Perhaps, though, we could do with a little more of that right now. While there is nothing more tiresome than presenteeism — people being in the office for the sake of it — things have now drifted too far the other way. It certainly feels like that during my latest tour of the City of London.
The place is dead, locked in an eternal Sunday morning. In Leadenhall Market, Europe’s oldest covered market, I chat to a group of business owners who have gathered at Andrea Oriani’s M Bar after another dismal day.
Optometrist Hayley Wainer runs Hawkes and Wainer, a practice founded by her father. ‘We used to open first thing to look after customers who wanted an eye test on their way in to work,’ she says. ‘These days, we might not start until 10.15. There’s no rush hour and no passing trade.’
Hayley has worked in the City all her professional life. She is proud to be a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, one of the 110 guilds which have been part of City of London life through fire, pestilence and war. They bounced back after the Great Plague of 1665 and again after the Great Fire a year later. But can they survive a prolonged bout of 21st century coronaphobia?
Britain now faces a pivotal few days as we attempt to overcome the gravest threat to our national prosperity since the war: a loss of nerve.
The schools seem on course to go back. But the grown-ups?