Business leaders in Ipswich have called for office workers to return to the town centre to help traders survive – but is now the right time?
“We just need more people in the town,” said Jane Watts, who runs a sandwich shop with her daughter Katie Waumsley.
The mother and daughter team took on Watts for Lunch in Lloyds Avenue two years ago.
They were able to “keep afloat” during lockdown thanks to a government grant, but since reopening in July Mrs Watts said trade had been slow to pick up again.
“We are still only hitting about a third of our trade most days which isn’t really covering costs.
“We are hoping in September there are going to be some more office people because that’s where a lot of our trade comes from,” she said.
Mrs Watts said it had crossed their minds to close the business but they were really keen to “ride the storm” and “come out the other side”.
She said they had bailed out the shop themselves to a certain extent and their lack of trade had affected at least four other local businesses they regularly bought products from.
Mrs Watts said social distancing measures were in place in the small shop with a “one person in” rule.
And her four members of staff – who have returned part-time on a flexi-furlough basis – adhere to the handwashing and cleaning procedures.
“Everybody has concerns about the virus but we need to get on and keep the economy going.
“People have got to start coming out again and support the local businesses because if they don’t they are going to lose us,” she said.
People have not completely stayed away from the town centre. Queues have been spotted outside barbers and others shops, and people have been attending restaurants and bars in the evenings.
But the high street had already seen a number of shops shut before Covid-19 – with more closing their doors for good since.
Terry Baxter, from Ipswich Central – the Business Improvement District (Bid) for the town – said footfall was down by a third and the high street was an “incredibly difficult place to do business at the moment”.
He said he appreciated it was a challenge for a number of firms to get workers back safely in the offices, but encouraged those who were able to reintroduce their staff to do so.
“This is a call on anybody who cares about their town centre, who cares about Ipswich.
“Ultimately if they don’t it’s going to have a significant effect on the town in which they work and employ their staff,” he said.
But Kie Humphreys, who runs four coffee shops in the town, said he was not so sure now was the right time for office workers to return.
His family-owned Coffee Cat has branches at the waterfront, in the town hall, on Franciscan Way and at Ip-City conference centre. It also provides catering services for offices.
He said the government grant and furlough scheme had been a “lifeline” to the company and as a result he had not had to make any staff redundant.
He said a “step-by-step” approach was needed rather than trying to rush back to normal.
“It’s difficult because we would like to see [office workers return], but if we see another peak and another lockdown I can’t see the government doing the furlough scheme again,” he said.
Can office workers return?
Under guidance from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), people can return to offices where it is safe to do so.
Employers have been told they must make sure workers and visitors who feel unwell stay at home and do not attend the premises, and that the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning is increased.
The guidance says everyone in the workplace should make “every reasonable effort” to comply with social distancing guidelines set by the government (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable).
People who were shielding were able to return to a Covid-secure workplace from 1 August, but were told they should carry on working from home wherever possible.
The government said workers “should not be forced into an unsafe workplace and the health and safety of workers and visitors, and public health, should not be put at risk”.
One company making the return to the workplace possible is Concertus Design and Property Consultants on Friars Bridge Road.
It has introduced a phased return, with staff being offered a maximum of three days working in the office. So far, 50 staff have returned out of 130.
Sarah Cossey, executive finance director, said a number of measures had been put in place, including 15 sanitisation stations, a one-way system and a temperature check for employees.
She said: “We have continued to encourage more to return, and when we get more interest, we would consider opening up another floor.
“We have tried not to apply pressure whilst also trying to reassure people and help with their anxieties.”
Sarah Barber, Ipswich Borough Council’s portfolio holder for the town centre, said it was important for Ipswich’s shops and businesses to “maintain public confidence”, but now could be an opportunity to evolve.
She said even before Covid-19 the traditional high street was “struggling” and the pandemic had made people re-examine how they lived their lives – and their retail habits were changing.
Ms Barber said the authority had put on a number of events, such as the Maritime Festival, free-of-charge to encourage visitors. She added it would continue to support the high street while focussing on its future events programme and cultural sites, including Christchurch Mansion and Ipswich Museum.
“Just because retail does not have the same focus as it did before it does not mean the town centre is dead on its feet,” said Ms Barber.
“As a borough council we will look at how we can help it evolve in the best possible way, so it continues to be a vibrant place to live, work and visit.”