Boris Johnson urged to help London back on its feet amid fears capital’s centre left ‘hollowed out’ by Covid


esperate business leaders today accused Boris Johnson of ignoring a “clear and present danger” to shattered city centres after he predicted they would “bounce back” when the pandemic is over.

Struggling sectors from pubs and restaurants to theatres and travel said that there was a risk of great cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham being left hollowed out by the crisis.

From politicians, including former Tory Cabinet minister Justine Greening, there were warnings that city centres should not be “taken for granted”.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, called for a plan to repair all the great cities and warned: “Without this there is a real and present danger that London’s Central Activity Zone will be hollowed out and our economic and social capital diminished. London and our major cities will not simply bounce back.”

Mr Johnson has rejected pessimism and predicted: “I think that our great cities will bounce back along with the rest of the economy once we’ve got this roadmap delivered.”

It came as Mr Johnson said Cabinet minister Michael Gove would chair a review into the introduction of “vaccine passports” as part of plans for the phased reopening of society. The Standard has previously highlighted that the passports were set to be brought in despite a number of senior ministers dismissing the idea.

Boris Johnson visiting a school in south east London

/ POOL/AFP via Getty Images

  • London restaurateurs spoke of their frustration at having to wait another three months to reopen their dining rooms, with some fearing a new round of failures because they were not able to secure support from banks to help tide them through.
  • Theatregoers were warned that many West End stages may not reopen until months after the May 17 date announced by the Prime Minister.
  • Wedding planners said some couples would be disappointed and would have to cancel their ceremonies because restrictions will not be fully lifted until June 21.
  • Matt Hancock said hugs will be allowed from May 17 – meaning grandparents can embrace their families again.
  • Britons scrambled to book breaks in the sun although a Government scientific adviser warned “the whole situation will be very uncertain for a long time”.
  • Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested the Government had “flexibility” to speed up the easing of lockdown. But infections expert Professor Neil Ferguson said it was “a faint chance that we can accelerate the schedule”.

The Prime Minister was put on the spot about the future of city centres by the Evening Standard during last night’s press briefing at No10.

Mr Johnson said he thought the pandemic would “accelerate some trends” and “opportunities” to turn some office blocks into residential homes.

But he said his experience was that remote working generated demand for people to meet up in person and concluded: “I think that London, our great cities, will be filled, full of buzz and life and excitement again, provided people have confidence about coming back into those city centres. Then you’ll get all the agglomeration effects that make London such an amazing place and make our cities so amazing.”

There was less optimism from businesses on the frontline. Hospitality chief Ms Nicholls said: “The Government’s own roadmap… singles out hospitality and the centre of London as the hardest hit. Given that work from home, social distancing and continued curbs on foreign travel will continue for many, many months there is now an urgent need for a clear, long-term strategic plan for the urban recovery and renewal.”

We need a campaign that moves in lockstep with ending lockdown to sell the sizzle of our city

Former transport secretary Ms Greening said cities may not recover without Government help. “Covid-19 has made levelling up even more of a national challenge,” she said. “London’s tourism, retail and hospitality sectors have been hugely damaged and disrupted.

“London’s success is intrinsically connected to the success of the wider UK and it’s vital our capital city’s fortunes aren’t taken for granted.”

John Dickie, director of policy at London First said: “The Prime Minister is right to be characteristically bullish about London’s future. But the UK needs central London’s economy back as soon as possible.

“Central London has been hit hard, losing more jobs than any UK region and seeing footfall collapse. That’s why we need continued support for those businesses that can’t trade properly, funding for our transport network and action to re-skill Londoners. And above all we need a campaign that moves in lockstep with ending lockdown to sell the sizzle of our city and get people back.”

Many hospitality businesses say they are being driven to the wall by banks refusing to extend overdraft facilities at a time they have no income.

Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate Luisa Porritt said: “The Prime Minister has his head in the sand if he doesn’t believe the home-working revolution will change the way London works. Businesses I speak to think the daily commute is dead.”

She said creating new homes in London’s centre “is a way to breathe new life into it” as demand for central office space diminishes.

Mr Johnson has tasked Mr Gove with leading a review into the possible use of vaccine passports. Speaking at a school in south London, the Prime Minister told reporters: “This is an area where we’re looking at a novelty for our country, we haven’t had stuff like this before, we’ve never thought in terms of having something that you have to show to go to a pub or a theatre.

“There are deep and complex issues that we need to explore, and ethical issues about what the role is for Government in mandating… We can’t be discriminatory against people who for whatever reason can’t have the vaccine. There might be medical reasons.”


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