First it was a quiet retreat, as the booming transport announcements from Boris Johnson advising Londoners not to “get caught out” by the pressure of Olympic traffic were turned off.
Now ministers are in full U-turn mode on warnings of transport overload, with David Cameron entreating visitors to return to the capital amid fears that organisers’ previous scare stories of packed tubes and jammed mainline stations have left theatres, restaurants and shops empty.
Speaking to Sky News last night, the prime minister said he was confident that fears of transport chaos had been “defeated” and that it was time for people to return to the city.
“People said also that London wouldn’t cope, the traffic would grind to a halt, the capital city wouldn’t manage, that hasn’t been the case,” Mr Cameron said. “Clearly there is a challenge now though to say to Londoners, to the British public … London’s working well, it’s open for business, come back into the capital, come and shop, come and eat in London’s restaurants and let’s make sure that all of London’s economy benefits from this.”
Within 12 hours of these bullish words, however, the key tube line serving the Olympic park had been suspended at the height of rush hour, and queues for the Javelin train were building up at Kings Cross station. While this was fixed relatively quickly, and all services have now resumed, it does beg the question of whether Mr Cameron’s boast that London was bearing up had come too soon. Today is expected to be one of the busiest during the games because the 80,000 seat stadium – closed since the opening ceremony – has opened for the start of athletics events, and organisers say 200,000 people are expected at the Olympic park. Transport officials are predicting 3m extra passenger journeys on the underground alone to ferry Olympic visitors to myriad events across the capital.
Even if Transport for London does manage to cope with this added pressure, the drop in footfall to businesses away from the sports events in East London is causing even greater consternation. The Hospitality Association has reported that takings are down by an average of 40 per cent at restaurants in central London, and Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theatres, told the FT earlier this week: “We’re bleeding, darling… I feel like I’ve been the bullseye for the archery competition.”
But Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary, infuriated already anxious business owners when he told the Evening Standard yesterday that anyone who had a business anywhere in London was “frankly quids in”.
In a subtle change of message, he also suggested that even if some parts of London were suffering, the expected economic boost from the games will in fact come in the future.
“The opening ceremony was the most magnificent display of British creativity, British culture, and British theatre that you could hope for,” Mr Hunt said, in an effort to comfort those wringing their hands over empty theatres. “As a result of that, people will be wanting to come to the theatre in London for years to come.”
This future gain was emphasised again in a speech the culture secretary gave to a business summit in Lancaster House, where he confirmed that ministers are focused on a four-year tourism marketing drive aiming to draw in an extra 4.5m visitors over the next four years.
“What the Olympics is doing is cementing London’s reputation as one of the great cities,” he said. Beleaguered restauranters, retailers and luvvies will certainly be hoping he is right.