The UK’s major city centres are still significantly less busy and Britons are, for the most part, continuing to shun public transport, data shows.
Despite a government drive to get people back in shops, restaurants, bars and workplaces, some parts of the country are recovering far more slowly than others from the coronavirus lockdown.
Coastal towns are busier, but cities are still quiet
Across the UK, foot traffic around high streets and shopping centres fell by 83% in April compared with 2019. It started to recover from mid-June, when non-essential shops were allowed to reopen.
Despite the recovery, on average footfall was still down 40% for the first half of August. But the strength of the bounceback varies by area.
In coastal places like Bournemouth and Newquay, or market towns like Sleaford and Dartford, as well as outer London, footfall is only around a quarter below last year’s levels.
But in regional cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, as well as central London, it is still more than 50% and 60% below 2019.
Historic cathedral cities like York and Durham match the UK average, recording footfall 40% down on last year.
The comparative lack of people returning to city centres will fuel fears about the continuing impact on the “lunchtime economy” and the prospects for businesses such as coffee and sandwich shops.
A survey of businesses by the Office for National Statistics showed that remote working was still popular in July and August.
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has warned unless workers do return to the office, the UK’s city centres will continue to be “ghost towns”.
“The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,” she said.
“They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.”
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The contrasting fortunes of coastal towns – where increased activity suggests a possible influx of day-trippers or staycationers – are also evident in Google data.
The Google Mobility Report shows movement around places such as restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries and cinemas is still a quarter (-23% in the first half of August) down on pre-pandemic levels.
The strongest recovery was in places popular with tourists and day-trippers, while local lockdowns had an effect on mobility.
In Leicester, the first UK city subjected to a local lockdown, non-essential shops were forced to close again on 30 June, while pubs and restaurants were not allowed to reopen until 3 August – nearly a month after the rest of England.
Similarly in Aberdeen, which locked down for three weeks during August, movement around retail and recreation areas is still less than half of the level seen in January.
Google tracks mobility patterns from users who have turned on the Location History setting, and it compares the most recent day with what was normal in January and February 2020.
Comparisons should be treated with caution as data is not seasonally adjusted, and some areas would expect to be busier in summer than winter.
Britons are back in their cars – but still shunning public transport
The government’s “stay at home” message on 23 March had a significant impact – especially on public transport.
In late March and April, train usage dropped to less than 5% of its 2019 level, and bus usage was just around 15% of what it was at the start of the year.
Around three months since the easing of lockdown began, the figures for trains, buses and the Tube still haven’t reached previous levels.
Jace Tyrrell, chief executive at New West End Company representing 600 businesses in London’s West End, said: “City centres, significantly central London, are being held back by a series of restrictions, including uncertainty surrounding returning to work and the use of public transport.
“A clear instruction from the government and mayor of London with regular risk management health data is desperately needed to instil consumer confidence over the coming weeks and months to get both workers back to the office, and customers into our shops, restaurants, bars and hotels.”
This might be no surprise with the government’s official guidance still encouraging Britons to walk or cycle when they can.
Figures from the sat nav company TomTom reveal people are getting back in the car, with road traffic congestion increasing in some areas, although it is mostly below 2019 levels.
In August, Brighton and Hove, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and London all recorded congestion similar to last year.
Other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow were still significantly down on the comparative period.
However, it is worth noting that, for the last few weeks, Greater Manchester has been under greater coronavirus restrictions than other parts of the UK.
Britons are staying at home less
While data indicates people are being selective about their modes of transport and their destinations, it also confirms that far fewer Britons are staying at home.
Mobile phone location data from the COVID-19 Impact Monitor from the University of Oxford shows that in the first half of August, just one in five people stayed at home.
This compares to just under one in two people at end of March and the beginning of April.
A person is considered to stay at home if they move less than 100 metres from their property.
The latest figures are similar to those recorded at the beginning of March, before the government advised people to “stay at home”.
However, it is reasonable to assume that fewer people would be at home in the summer month of August than in March, so there could still be a lockdown hangover of sorts.
And, even though movement patterns in the UK are still far from normal, the return of children to school could encourage people back into the workplace – or we might be developing a new way of living.