Coronavirus Outbreak: London Retail Remains Open

LONDON — The holiday season is kicking off, and England is locking down for a month starting on Nov. 5. It’s the second full-scale lockdown this year, and retailers here are disappointed — and angry — that shops will be forced to go dark in what are key, money-making weeks in the run-up to Christmas.

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company, which represents 600 retail and hospitality businesses around Oxford and Regent Streets, said this “circuit-breaker lockdown of non-essential travel and retail is a true nightmare before Christmas for West End retailers.”

He noted that the West End employs one in 10 Londoners, “and the run-up to Christmas is shaping up to deliver some of the most difficult trading periods we’ve ever experienced. Many jobs have already been lost, and many more are at risk, unless full furlough is reinstated.”

West End retailers — and others in popular locations across the country — have also been hit hard by the lack of international tourism. London, and cities such as York, Cambridge, Bath, Canterbury and Edinburgh in Scotland, depend on waves of international students, and tourists, spending their money.

The business lobby believes that West End retailers will miss out on sales worth 2 billion pounds during the Christmas period due to the latest lockdown measures unveiled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday evening. The measures are set to remain in place until Dec. 2, although the government has made it clear they could last longer.

New West End Company said that under the new restrictions, with a delay of peak season beyond Black Friday, high-street sales will rise by just 500 million pounds across the district before Christmas. It said that current trading rates are already down by 64 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

“The month of November usually signals the start of the ‘golden’ eight weeks leading up to Christmas, a period that sees West End businesses secure a third of their total annual sales. Yet with forecast revenue significantly reduced combined with mounting costs, West End retailers face devastating decisions on the viability of their businesses without further government support and an increase in footfall,” NWEC said.

With non-essential retail closed until December, the prediction is that only nine million visits from festive shoppers will be made before Christmas, in comparison to 42 million visits made during the same period in 2019. Any further restrictions will lead to a proportionate loss of sales, and trigger severe consequences among retailers, the organization said.

Despite the disappointing news, NWEC said it still plans to switch on the Christmas lights on Monday night. Tyrrell said the show must go on, and that he is looking forward to welcoming visitors back on Dec. 2. He said the lights this year are meant to celebrate the nation’s heroes, such as National Health Service workers, and that members of the public can still nominate groups and individuals to be highlighted.

The retail data analytics organization Springboard believes that over the six weeks from Nov. 22 to Dec. 26, footfall across all U.K. retail destinations will be down 62 percent. That compares to a decline of 32.7 percent Springboard had been projecting before Johnson revealed the “circuit-breaker lockdown.”

Springboard added that between Nov. 5 and Dec. 2, when the lockdown will be in force across England, footfall is set to decline by 78.8 percent, year-on-year, with high streets hit hardest with a decline of 87.3 percent.

It also said that 63.5 percent of Brits intend to spend less on Christmas this year than in 2019.

Johnson said during Saturday’s news conference that “we have got to be humble in the face of nature. The virus is spreading faster than expected, and hospitals will run out of capacity if we do not act now.”

As of Nov. 5, all non-essential retail will be forced to shut, although click-and-collect services will remain open. Restaurants, bars and pubs will also need to close, but can remain open for food takeaway orders. Everyone will be urged to work from home.

All of the large retailers — Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty — have already opened their holiday shops, and will now have to sell their teddy bears, Christmas puddings and baubles online.

The measures will remain in place until Dec. 2, although they could go on longer, the government said. Supermarkets will remain open and will be allowed to sell non-essential items such as clothing, accessories, gifts and household goods, which is positive news for the likes of Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, which have all broadened their offerings over the years.

Schools, universities, construction and public works projects will remain open. The government also plans to extend its furlough scheme, in which it provided financial support to laid-off workers, through the beginning of December. The scheme, put in place early in the pandemic, was due to end on Oct. 31.

Helen Brocklebank, ceo of Walpole, which represents luxury businesses in Britain, said in an interview that while this latest lockdown was inevitable, “it doesn’t make things any easier for businesses. The next six to eight weeks is when everybody makes their money, and so many businesses were hoping to mitigate their losses from earlier this year.”

She said that while click-and-collect will be possible, retailers and brands still have to organize themselves quickly, and find more distribution centers to satisfy online demand. Customer demand, she added, is far from dead, but it’s not always easy — or practical — to fulfill online orders from the store floor due to social distancing and other factors.

Brocklebank is also concerned about the next four days before lockdown happens. “Westfield shopping center is packed to the rafters right now. What’s that going to do for the spread of COVID-19?”

Saturday’s hastily arranged news conference followed a leak in The Times of London on Friday night. The newspaper reported that Johnson had finally decided on a temporary lockdown despite opposition to the move among members of his Conservative Party and certain members of Parliament.

In early October, despite repeated warnings from medical advisers, Johnson had decided against a brief “circuit-breaker” during the half-term school holidays. Johnson’s argument had always been that any more shutdowns would be damaging to the British economy and to people’s mental health.

But now the numbers, and projections, appear to be too extreme to ignore. The country’s medical advisers, who flanked Johnson during the news conference, said that new cases of COVID-19 are spreading “steadily” across the country, and affecting younger age groups, too, including teenagers and people in their 40s — and not just the elderly.

They said the potential number of deaths in England could be “twice as bad” as the first wave earlier this year, and that all the ventilator beds in National Health Service hospitals will be filled to capacity by the end of November if no emergency measures are now.

“No responsible prime minister could ignore the message of those figures,” said Johnson, who early on during the pandemic caught a severe case of the virus himself and had to be hospitalized. “We need to get the rates of infection down. It would be a medical and moral disaster if we run out of beds.” Johnson emphasized that the NHS also needs to keep treating non-COVID-19 patients, such as people undergoing cancer treatment, and cannot risk being overwhelmed.

He acknowledged that “Christmas will be very different this year,” and said he hoped the temporary lockdown would allow families to spend time together over the holidays in December.

Johnson also said he remained optimistic that life will improve by the spring as, by then, the U.K. will have rolled out a program of “rapid turnaround” COVID-19 tests, and would be enlisting the Army to help operate the testing centers and ensure the checks are carried out.

“We need to act now to contain a full-scale surge,” Johnson said, before repeating his mantra from earlier this year: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”

Johnson said that Parliament would debate the proposed new measures on Tuesday and take a vote on Wednesday. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been taking similar steps to prevent the spread of the virus in their respective regions.

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