It’s catastrophic. No audience, no income,” says James Williams, chief executive of the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End.
Its production of '& Juliet' is postponed indefinitely, almost all its staff are furloughed and Williams says the local economy is suffering from the curtain temporarily falling on Theatreland this summer.
“For every £1 spent on a theatre seat in the West End, £5 is spent in the local economy, so the theatres are a critical part to the success of central London.” Local businesses need the West End’s theatres to “come back to life”, he says.
Nearby in Victoria – a transport hub for both commuters and visitors flying into Gatwick – a row of shops catering to tourists are almost all vacant and the train station is suffering from the collapse in foreign arrivals. And in the City, the usual buzz of finance workers are conspicuous by their absence in the pubs, cafés and restaurants.
“We would not have any business if the office workers don’t come back to the City,” says Lauren MacDougall, manager of craft beer house the Pelt Trader as she still waits to reopen.
“Knowing the City, people will always want to drink and socialise. It’s going to be a slow process getting back to the ‘normal days’ but it will get back to normal.”
The cultural, tourism and business capital of Britain, central London’s economy has been a victim of its own success in virus-stricken industries.
A plethora of live growth signals tracked by economists reveals central London has transformed from the country’s economic powerhouse to a ghost town devoid of activity. It is suffering a deeper downturn and slower recovery than all other towns and cities in the UK and capitals in Europe.
Last week footfall in central London was down 73pc compared to a year earlier, worse than anywhere in the UK, according to Springboard. The UK average was 52pc lower than last year, while outer London is down a more modest 38pc. Separate footfall data suggests it is also recovering slower than anywhere else.
Movement of people and vehicles in cities – a measure tracked by economists for hints of activity – is much lower in London than any other European capital, Citymapper data suggests, while restaurant bookings were down 82pc on Tuesday compared to 66pc lower in the UK as a whole and up 3pc in Germany, OpenTable reveals.
“Because there is a very vibrant tourism, hospitality and leisure industry, it has a disproportionately high number of such businesses in central London, more than any other part of the country,” warns Rajesh Agrawal, deputy mayor of London for business. He says more support is needed for the firms and believes the winding down of the furlough scheme disproportionately affects London.
“In Canary Wharf, 120,000 people work there but only 7,000 are coming in. So what do you think is going to happen to the small bars and the restaurants?”
The economic activity generated in London is equivalent to the output of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North East and Yorkshire combined. It would be just outside the world’s top 20 economies if it were an independent country, and in central London around 10pc of the country’s output is generated in just 0.01pc of its land, according to the Centre for London, the think tank.
A city so reliant on international visitors, its public transport infrastructure and millions of office workers has proven to be ultra-vulnerable to a pandemic. Stopping the flow of people from the suburbs and abroad has brought activity to a complete halt.
A high street recovery tracker by Centre for Cities looking at footfall suggests that London is suffering the slowest recovery in the entire country. Smaller and often more deprived towns where office work is less important have seen the most rapid return to normality, including Basildon, Burnley and Doncaster.
“The recovery in London is not about shops reopening, it’s about offices reopening, visitors coming back to this country from overseas and it is about public transport being perceived as safe and accessible,” says Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities.
The trends that have paralysed the city’s economy are “evident in other places but it is the extreme nature of it” in London, Carter says.
“80pc of London’s workforce coming into its central business district do so by public transport, in other cities it’s around the 50pc mark.
“London is a global destination for international tourists, Manchester is not to the same degree.”
The natives are also less likely to need to commute into the centre, given the prevalence of service sector jobs done almost entirely on computers. Some 57pc of Londoners were working from home in April, well above any other region and the UK average of 47pc, according to the Office for National Statistics.
London’s reliance on an overcrowded transport system means offices cannot bring workers back even if they can make their sites safe. Tube journeys are around a fifth of their normal levels, according to Transport for London data.
Some fear a temporary loss in the capital’s output could become permanent, if Covid-19 leads to a move towards remote working, or the failure to produce a vaccine means annual spikes in infections. The post-Covid economy could look very different from its pre-pandemic shape and to the detriment of the capital’s centre.
A remote working revolution would lead to much less office space being needed and less workers travelling in from London’s suburbs and surrounding counties.
Richard Tice, property veteran and Brexit Party chairman, warns the virtual abandonment of the city centre could cut office rents by as much as 40pc over the next 18 months with retail rents even harder hit.
“It is dire. Places have reopened and then shut again as there is no footfall. I have spoken to dozens of office workers who say they don’t have to come back until the new year.”
An increase in remote working could make many city centre businesses unsustainable and push those services out to the suburbs as workers move.
Others remain optimistic that central London’s economy can adapt to the new normal, however. Eventually City workers will flock to the pubs, travellers will buzz through Victoria and the bright lights of the West End will return. How long it will take and whether pre-virus activity levels ever return remains uncertain.
Agrawal says: “When we talk about the recovery, it’s not just about going back to the old normal. We need to reimagine what our city of the future might look like.”
Richard Brown, deputy director at Centre for London, says firms reducing their office space will allow new entrants to move in.
“In previous recessions, the area around Hoxton and Shoreditch, a lot of vacant property arose there and you had creative industries moving in. The case is still there for big cities like London but it will be different.”