Staff still shun London’s ‘ghost town’ finance hubs

The square mile in the heart of London, home of the finance industry, is largely empty during the pandemic. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 10 August 2020

Staff still shun London’s ‘ghost town’ finance hubs

  • Fears over using public transport and child care issues remain the prime obstacles to office returns

LONDON: Deserted streets, empty restaurants, shuttered stores: London’s financial districts remain largely abandoned by workers still worried about the pandemic and reluctant to return to office life.

The City, a square mile in the heart of the British capital traditionally home to the finance industry, was eerily quiet over the past week, with just a smattering of tourists strolling the streets around St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In Canary Wharf in East London’s Docklands, known for its skyscrapers housing the headquarters of major banks and related firms, it is a similar story.

The picture has not changed much despite the government encouraging employees to begin returning to workplaces since Aug. 1 in a bid to boost the struggling British economy.

It is up to individual companies to decide how forcefully to urge their staff back and many are opting for a more relaxed approach.

“Many of our clients, particularly in finance and insurance, are not coming back to work until next year,” said Pablo Shah of the CEBR economic consultancy.

Although London’s business districts are typically more empty at the peak of summer, the city has looked like “a ghost town” recently, he added.

Part of the reason is companies have adopted remote working successfully.

Many employees have become comfortable holding meetings via videoconferencing and appear more than happy to do without the long and costly daily commutes to offices.

Fears over using public transport and child care issues remain the prime obstacles to office returns, according to business lobby London First.

But it expects things to change more significantly in September, when children are set to return to school.

Only 34 percent of executives in Britain — 31 percent in London — are back in the office, a study by US bank Morgan Stanley reported this week.

The country, which has the highest death toll in Europe from the coronavirus, lags behind its continental neighbors, which have seen a majority of white-collar employees return to workplaces.

The divide between those working from home and others who have returned to offices is showing signs of causing friction within some companies, according to human resources analysts.

Katie Jacobs, from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that it had “fractured” some work environments and anecdotally even sparked “resentment” toward those staying away.

Some tabloids have chosen their side, with the Daily Mail — whose parent company owns two free commuter newspapers hard-hit by the new work-from-home culture — running several front page and opinion articles demanding a return to offices.

“We’ve had our lunch, now let’s get back to work!” screamed the paper’s front page Tuesday, the day after the government launched a restaurant support scheme paying a chunk of diners’ bills.

However, it may be disappointed with the response.

Large companies like NatWest Bank have recommended that the majority of their employees continue to work remotely until next year.

Google, which has restarted building its huge headquarters next to King’s Cross station, is even encouraging working from home until next July.

Indonesia turns focus to energy security and renewables amid pandemic

Updated 24 November 2020

Indonesia turns focus to energy security and renewables amid pandemic

  • Govt. aims to use of opportunity presented by COVID-19 outbreak to make transition

JAKARTA: The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has presented Indonesia with the opportunity to work toward energy security and switch from conventional to renewable sources, officials have said.

“Indonesia has made various breakthroughs such as making use of biodiesel B30,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said during an online press conference on Sunday, quoting President Joko Widodo’s address during the G20 Summit.

“(We) will be conducting tests on green diesel D100 from palm oil – which will absorb 1 million tons of palm oil produced by farmers – and also install rooftop solar power plants in hundreds of thousands of households,” he added.

Widodo also made a reference to data from the World Economic Forum on the massive potential of the green economy, which could generate up to $10.1 trillion and create 395 million new jobs by 2030.

Earlier this month on Nov. 4, energy and mineral resources minister Arifin Tasrif said that the current difficulties posed by the pandemic had spurred Indonesia to accelerate the energy transition, by developing renewable energy, ensure efficiency and work toward maintaining energy security for lasting energy independence.

Energy security and its steady supply were some of the top concerns voiced by Tasrif during the G20 energy ministers’ meeting in September.

“COVID-19 has created an economic crisis and shrunk energy demands. All G20 members must work together to ensure that the energy market is stabilized and maintain supply affordability. These are a top priority for Indonesia,” Tasrif said at the meeting.

He also lauded Saudi Arabia, the summit host, for pushing ahead with the 4Rs issue – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Remove – in the circular carbon economy (CCE) concept, which was endorsed by the energy ministers after their meetings.

Tasrif said the issue was an “important part of reintroducing the role of biofuel and hydrogen in the CCE platform,” and in line with Indonesia’s adoption of the mandatory use of biodiesel – containing 30 percent palm oil and known as B30 – from January this year, specifically in the transport, power plant, industrial and commercial sectors.

Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has set a target to use 23 percent of renewable energy by 2025 and 50 percent by 2050, as part of its national energy mix plan.

The government has listed provisions for renewable energy and its conservation among its seven priority programs for next year and allocated 16.7 billion rupiahs ($1.2 million) for environmental preservation efforts in the 2021 budget.

“Our state budget is very much pro-green ... The government is already on the right track with the implementation of energy transition policy,” Arif Budimanta, a special presidential staff on economic affairs, said during an online discussion recently.

He added that President Joko Widodo had been very “hands-on” with the implementation of the energy transition policy and was directly supervising the progress of the policy.

Government officials claimed that the adoption of B30’s mandatory use – the first in the world – has been successful.

However, its target this year had reduced from the initial 9.5 million kilolitres to 8.3 million kilolitres, with 6 million kilolitres realized so far.

Mandatory use is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 16.9 million tons.

“The switch to a biodiesel program, which has been in place since 2015, has been able to replace almost 25 million liters of imported fossil fuel by June this year, and we have been able to save foreign exchange spending by roughly equivalent of 127 trillion rupiahs,” Eddy Abdurrachman, head of the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency said during a recent webinar.

Static tests on diesel engines for 1,000 hours of use of the biodiesel blend are underway at the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry’s research and development lab.

The head of the research and development agency, Dadan Kusdiana, said on Aug. 26 that scientists had managed to conduct studies on the lab’s engine test bench after the COVID-19 outbreak restricted them from testing on the roads.

“We expect to wrap up the tests by the end of the year,” Kusdiana said.