Non-essential shops in England will be able to open by April 12 at the earliest after more than three months of being shut down.
Stores will open at the same time that hairdressers, pubs and gyms can get back up and running – regardless of mounting fears about the economic meltdown.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister confirmed schools will reopen from March 8, followed by the next stage of loosening on March 29, when two households will be able to gather and the Rule of Six makes a comeback.
Retail bosses welcomed the April 12 announcement, but urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to ‘relieve struggling businesses of bills they cannot currently pay’.
The British Retail Consortium’s chief executive, Helen Dickinson, said non-food stores have lost more than £22billion over the course of the pandemic.
Stores will open at the same time that hairdressers, pubs and gyms can get back up and running – regardless of mounting fears about the economic meltdown
Reacting to shops opening in around seven weeks, Ms Dickinson warned that every day a shop remains closed ‘increases the chances that it will never open again’.
She said: ‘We welcome the additional clarity provided by the Prime Minister. While we are encouraged by a plan for non-essential stores to reopen, the heavy impact of the pandemic means some may never be able to.
‘The cost of lost sales to non-food stores during lockdown is now over £22billion and counting. Every day that a shop remains closed increases the chances that it will never open again – costing jobs and damaging local communities.’
She added: ‘Non-essential shops are ready to reopen and have been investing hundreds of millions on making themselves Covid-secure.
‘Government should remain flexible and allow non-essential retail to reopen as soon as the data suggests it is safe to do so. Until it is permitted, retailers will need continued support from Government.
‘We welcome the PM’s call ‘not to pull the rug out’ from under businesses. To this end, the Government must act on three vital issues – rents, rates and grants.
Retail bosses welcomed the April 12 announcement, but urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to ‘relieve struggling businesses of bills they cannot currently pay’
It follows retail analyst Springboard finding that footfall across UK retail destinations increased for the fourth week in a row in the week beginning February 7
‘To avoid further job losses and permanent job closures, the Chancellor must announce a targeted business rates relief from April and extend the moratorium on debt enforcement, as well as removing state aid caps on Covid business grants.
‘This would relieve struggling businesses of bills they cannot currently pay and allow them to trade their way to recovery.’
Some social media users questioned the seven-week wait, warning that it could lead to a ‘huge’ loss of jobs in the non-essential shops sector.
One person tweeted: ‘Kind of mind boggling to think in some parts of the country non-essential shops were shut until the end of October and (barring a few weeks of pre-Xmas relaxation) won’t open again until APRIL 12 at the earliest.’
Another wrote: ‘That’s another seven weeks, say goodbye to a huge number of hospitality and shop jobs, along with construction and others as no one will have any cash to spend on anything.’
However, others were excited at the prospect of returning to shops in mid-April, with one Twitter user posting: ‘April 12 the charity shop is getting ransacked by me’.
A second person added: ‘Non essential shops opening April 12?!? Let’s goooo’.
It follows retail analyst Springboard finding that footfall across UK retail destinations increased for the fourth week in a row in the week beginning February 7, saying the figures deliver more evidence that shoppers are experiencing ‘lockdown fatigue’.
Footfall rose by 1.5 per cent, following a rise of 6.7 per cent in the week previous, as well as increasing by 3.9 per cent in shopping centres and 6.1 per cent in retail parks.
Speaking last Monday, Diane Wehrle, Insights Director at Springboard, said: ‘Last week was the fourth consecutive week in which footfall has increased from the week before, delivering ever more evidence that shoppers are experiencing lockdown fatigue and are increasingly willing to travel to retail destinations, whatever the weather.
‘In fact, in the seven weeks since Lockdown 3 came into effect on Boxing Day, the only declines have been in the first three weeks of the lockdown, which included the two weeks following Christmas when footfall typically drops anyway.
‘The drop in footfall from the same week last year is now the lowest it’s been since the second week of the lockdown.’
Campsites and holiday lets can also reopen for single households from April 12 – but international travel is completely off the cards until at least May 17.
The announcement came as part of Boris Johnson’s long-anticipated four-phase exit strategy, in which he warned the ‘threat remains’ and cases, hospitalisations and deaths will rise in the coming months as no vaccines can offer 100 per cent protection for the whole population.
He said there will be a five-week gap between the main steps in the roadmap, even longer than had been expected.
The Prime Minister said it takes four weeks to assess the impact of each step, and the country needs a week’s notice for changes. Going any faster could mean having to reimpose the lockdown, he said.
He set four tests for continuing with any easing including no new concerns emerging about variant strains. The other criteria are the vaccine rollout going well, jabs being effective at reducing hospital admissions and deaths, and avoiding a surge in hospital cases.
He admitted that the surging vaccine drive had encouraged many to think it is possible to ‘go faster’.
Mr Johnson said: ‘I understand their frustration and I sympathise very much with the exhaustion and the stress that people are experiencing and businesses are experiencing… but to them I say the end really is in sight.’