July 29, 2020 / 1:42 PM / 17 days ago

London expects only half of bankers back at their desks this year

LONDON (Reuters) - London’s normally buzzing financial districts will still be a pale shadow by the end of the year, as banks plan for no more than half their staff, who have mostly worked from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, to come to the office.

FILE PHOTO: Office buildings are pictured in the City of London financial district, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain July 17, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

The leader of the City of London, Catherine McGuinness, said on Wednesday that banks were saying their office capacity was likely to be 40-50% at best, because of the need to space desks out and limit public transport use for coronavirus hygiene.

Many staff will feel able to return in September to both the City and its offshoot at Canary Wharf, despite possible anxiety about using public transport, because schools should reopen then.

But the reduced numbers will inevitably mean that some of those districts’ cafes, barbers and other shops, by then deprived of government support payments, shut for good.

“We will see a ‘new normal’ gradually develop even after we have dealt with the virus,” McGuinness told Reuters, “but we are confident there is a place for the office for gathering people.”

The City must also handle the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition arrangements with the European Union in December.

Access to the UK financial sector’s biggest customer, now unfettered, will depend in future on Brussels deeming UK rules to be “equivalent”, a process still dragging on.

McGuinness said she was disappointed that the talks had been so slow and become politicised.

She urged the government to let EU financial firms access the UK, to help keep global financial trade flowing through London, without waiting to see what Brussels does:

“I urge our politicians to be pragmatic ... we have got to maintain our competitive edge for the future.”

LEGACY OF SLAVERY

McGuinness also promised that the City would tackle racism and reflect “the fullness of history”, after a task force set up in June because of the Black Lives Matter movement reports back in the autumn.

The trading of slaves from Britain’s colonies in West Africa to the Americas brought vast wealth to Britain and the City in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was only in 2015 that the state finally paid off the huge debt, worth 40% of the then-national budget, taken out to compensate owners after slavery was abolished in 1835.

The Lloyd’s of London insurance market has apologised for covering many slave ships, and the Bank of England has apologised for the “inexcusable” connections to the trade of some of its former governors and directors.

In June, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader who was one of the city’s leading benefactors.

Slideshow (4 Images)

McGuinness said it was too early to say if any statues would be removed from the City of London.

One that has been mentioned is a huge monument to William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London in the 1760s, who was the largest slave owner of his time and became rich thanks to the slaves who worked his plantations in Jamaica.

The stone statue and monument stand in the Guildhall, the ornate seat of the City of London Corporation, where McGuinness formally chairs the policy and resources committee.

Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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