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UK transport minister: 'It is now safe to return to work'

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s government is urging people to return to their offices and workplaces to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, transport minister Grant Shapps said on Friday.

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“Our central message is pretty straightforward: we are saying to people it is now safe to return to work,” he told LBC radio.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will launch a campaign extolling the virtues of returning to the office while a new online tool will help people avoid the most crowded trains and buses, a report in The Telegraph newspaper said.

According to the Centre for Cities think tank, only 17% of workers in British cities had returned to their workplaces by early August.

Last month Johnson encouraged people working from home to get back to their workplaces to help the economy recover from its 20% contraction in the April-June period, the largest fall among big developed economies.

Businesses suffering from reduced numbers of people in city centres range from sandwich shops such as the Pret a Manger chain - which is cutting more than a third of its workforce - to landlords worried about lower demand for office space.

The Confederation of British Industry’s director-general, Carolyn Fairbairn, said on Thursday that some city centres resembled ghost towns, and backed calls for people to return to offices.

But many other business leaders and economists think the move is premature, and that it would be counterproductive to resist much of the shift towards working from home.

“I think it is looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope,” said Andrew Sentance, a former Bank of England policymaker who now advises consultancy Cambridge Econometrics.

“We should be thinking about the type of economy that will emerge from this big shock, and trying to allow firms to adapt.”

Reporting by Marc Jones and Paul Sandle; additional reporting by David Milliken; editing by Elizabeth Piper and Stephen Addison

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