LONDON: The UK government has set June 15 for the reopening of all non-essential retail stores within a Covid-19 compliant setting as the lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus is eased in stages.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the timeline at the daily Downing Street press conference on Monday night, stressing that the move remains contingent on continued progress in keeping the infection rate of the deadly virus down and retailers adhering to new guidelines to protect shoppers and workers.
Some easing of retail will begin along with primary school openings planned from June 1, with outdoor markets and car showrooms among those allowed to become operational from next week.
“Then, from June 15, we intend to allow all other non-essential retail, ranging from department stores to small, independent shops, to reopen. This change will be contingent upon progress against the five tests and will only be permitted for those retail premises which are COVID-secure,” Johnson said.
New guidance for the retail sector, detailing the measures required to meet the necessary social distancing and hygiene standards will be issued for shops to put plans in place in time for a mid-June opening.
“I want people to be confident they can shop safely, provided they follow the social distancing rules for all premises,” Johnson said.
Enforcement action would be taken against any retailers not ensuring a COVID-secure social distance for their premises – including fines and even jail sentences of up to two years.
“These are careful but deliberate steps on the road to rebuilding our country,” the UK prime minister said, adding that around 25,000 contact tracers to keep track of the infection rate will be in place by June 1 to help open up the economy.
The announcement is an effective notice for the retail sector to get its operations ready for a reopening in a secure environment. Non-essential retail will include shops selling clothes, shoes, toys, furniture, books, and electronics, plus tailors, auction houses, photography studios, and indoor markets. Shops like supermarkets and pharmacies, deemed as essential, have already been trading throughout the pandemic.
The government said businesses will only be able to open once they have completed a risk assessment, in consultation with trade union representatives or workers, and are confident they are managing the risks.
Measures under a Covid-secure guidance include shops considering a poster in their windows to demonstrate awareness of the guidance and commitment to safety measures, storing returned items for 72 hours before putting them back out on the shop floor, placing protective coverings on large items touched by the public such as beds or sofas, and frequent cleaning of objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, including self-checkouts, trolleys, coffee machines and betting terminals, for example.
“The guidance we have set out provides a vital framework to get shops open in a way that is safe for everyone,” said UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma.
“It explains how retail workers who are not currently working can go back to work as safely as possible and feel confident in their workplace. And it reassures customers that shops are properly assessing the risks and putting in place measures to protect them,” the Indian-origin minister said.
Josh Hardie, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Deputy Director General, said, “Our shops are doing all they can to keep the public and their staff safe, and we’ve seen many retailers leading from the front with innovative solutions to do just that.
“As more and more businesses turn their attention to reopening, this guidance will help them plan to do so safely and securely.”
Under the government’s roadmap for opening up the high street, hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons, and the hospitality sector, remain closed, because the risk of transmission in these environments is still deemed as high due to long periods of person to person contact.
The UK went into a strict stay-at-home lockdown on March 23 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and has since confirmed being past the peak and allowed people to return to work if they cannot work from home in recent weeks. The death toll from the virus is edging towards 37,000 but the rate of hospitalisations has been on a downward trajectory.
According to the Johns Hopkins University data, the number of Covid-19 infections in the country has crossed 260,000.
The government has set a five-level test for a step by step lifting of restrictions, with the alert levels based primarily on the R value – or the rate at which the infection is being spread – and the total number of coronavirus cases. The lower the level, the fewer the measures and Britain is moving from Level 4 to Level 3 having crossed the peak. The focus is now on ensuring there is no second peak of the virus as the lockdown is gradually lifted.