The Government should consider making face masks mandatory in busy public places, the Mayor of London has said.
Sadiq Khan claimed coronavirus fears are stopping people returning to central London.
The city’s central districts are packed with restaurants, shops and theatres that rely on visitors from across the capital and far beyond.
But footfall is still much lower than normal despite looser lockdown restrictions in recent weeks.
Last month, a survey revealed that four in 10 Londoners would feel safer coming back to the city centre if everyone followed social distancing rules.
A similar number (37%) would be more confident if more people wore masks, according the poll in the London Evening Standard
And the Mayor said the Government should consider extending rules that require masks in shops to all busy public places – in line with cities like Paris.
On a visit to the West End Mr Khan warned businesses are facing a “perfect storm” from the pandemic.
The number of visitors in central London has fallen 63% on the same period last year since shops reopened, according to local business association New West End Company.
With more residents shopping in their home boroughs or online, the association expects £5 billion of sales in the city centre to be lost this year.
Around a third of restaurant and retail jobs could be cut by the end of 2020 – which would mean 50,000 redundancies, it estimates.
Mr Khan warned that Covid-19 is a “real existential threat” to the city centre.
“With employers planning to continue home-working well into next year, the number of people visiting the West End will be reduced for many months ahead,” he said.
“In the face of a perfect economic storm, our businesses need urgent and sustained support from Government to ensure they can survive this pandemic.”
In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Mayor outlined more policies he believes could help the West End.
- The current business rates holiday – allowing hospitality and leisure companies to skip the payments till March – should be extended for another year in central London, or a discount should be arranged.
- The Government should set up a financial aid scheme for central London restaurants, shops, theatres and other businesses in hard hit industries.
- Furlough should also be extended for these sectors, and there should be more financial support for freelance workers.
- Small and medium sized businesses should have a rent support scheme to help tackle arrears built up during the crisis.
- Business rates should be overhauled, so online businesses pay a fair share of tax as well as those on the high street.
New West End Company chief executive Jace Tyrell said businesses in central London have seen “a slow increase in footfall” but said the “beating heart of the British economy” will still need more help.
“With few international visitors, the next couple of months will be a defining moment for hundreds of West End businesses,” he warned.
“Instilling confidence in our valued local and domestic customers to come to central London will make a huge change to the hard-hit businesses across our district.”
But Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish, who represents Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster, said the Mayor needs to have more “vision” for London’s future.
“This is a really serious crisis we’re in both medically and now economically and I don’t see the sense of urgency you would expect,” he said.
Mr Devenish, who is also a Westminster councillor, said he doesn’t take issue with the Mayor’s specific proposals – but writing a letter “is not leadership”.
“I don’t think there’s any magic bullet solution,” he added. “I think he’s got a very simplistic view of things.”
Even before coronavirus the move to online shopping was reshaping the high street, the Assembly member argued.
“I genuinely believe this is like the 1860s with the train or the 1920s with the car – the internet is gradually changing society,” he explained.
But without proper direction, London could see a “waste land of empty shops” in once bustling business districts, he warned.
“The UK economy may do very well out of this in the long term but our major cities won’t,” he said.
“This is a step change for the country and the Mayor needs to take a real fresh look at London.
“He needs to get people together to discuss this – businesses, young people, and everyone who’s involved.”
Mr Devenish claimed the current partnerships working on London’s response to coronavirus – the London Transition Board and London Recovery Board – are too “bureaucratic”.
“It’s a tick box way of doing things and it’s not working at all,” he said. “He’s not reaching out to anybody except the same old Labour party suspects.”