Indoor hospitality reopens in England, Wales and Scotland today (with certain restrictions in place), while non-essential retail will reopen across Ireland, in what should provide a much-needed footfall boost to shopping destinations.
However excitement about the reopening of indoor hospitality across the UK, with the “rule of six” in place, has been tempered by news of the potential spread of the “Indian variant” of the Covid-19 virus.
Compared to pre-pandemic 2019, footfall across the UK now sits at -27.2% in shopping centres, a heavier -35.6% in high streets and just -1.3% in retail parks, according to the latest figures from Springboard.
Altus Group estimates that nearly 100,000 hospitality establishments will be re-opening with limited capacity today. Some have remained closed since before Christmas while others were able to open outdoor services on 12 April (along with the reopening of non-essential retail in England) but poor weather has proved challenging.
Hospitality chiefs say that today’s reopening, while welcome, is still just a stepping stone to 21 June, when all restrictions are currently due to lift.
Patrick Dardis, CEO of London-based pub owner and brewer Young’s, told the PA news agency that he will “find it hard to relax” before 21 June. “I am excited because it is a major step forward for us and our customers,” he said.
“The past few weeks have been really positive and trade has been better than expected but we’re still losing money. The weather has been pretty dire and people are hardy but we really needed this next step to come.”
He said the company will bring back 1,400 workers from furlough and has hired another 500 workers for the latest phase, which will see all 276 Young’s pubs open again.
“I really see June 21 as our Freedom Day but welcoming all our staff back, seeing more customers return will be a big step back on to the path to normality,” Dardis added.
Pizza Express managing director Zoe Bowley said that preparations for reopening have been “smooth”. The chain has opened 143 restaurants for outdoor dining but will serve at all 347 of its locations across England, Scotland and Wales from today.
“There is certainly a sense of excitement amongst all our teams. We have enjoyed serving our customers outside over the last month but there is nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of a busy pizzeria, and the positive emotion of having all our restaurants open for the first time in over a year, and all our teams back together.
“We recognise that there are challenges for the sector as a whole such as the ongoing property negotiations, and hospitality has been particularly on the front line during the pandemic.
“But as a company specifically, we undertook some decisions last year, putting us in a strong position for growth which stands us in good stead for expansion and some exciting initiatives we have in the pipeline,” Bowley said.
However news of the spread of the Indian variant of the virus, which is potentially more transmissible than the dominant “Kent” version of the virus, has led to the Government and scientists to urge the public to avoid meeting indoors as far as possible, which could dampen demand for indoor dining.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has gone so far as to say the ban on indoor gatherings – from today two households are also able to mix – should have remained in place and suggested it might need to be reimposed.
Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, he said: “I think it is reasonable to just be sensible about knowing where transmission is occurring – mostly indoors … with lots of different people, different families different communities, and I would just restrict that at the moment, personally.”
He said the crucial test for the coming weeks was whether the vaccines administered managed to prevent serious illness and hospital admissions and. “I think we will see an increase of cases and infections over the coming weeks, as some of the restrictions are lifted. The key question is whether we have decoupled increased transmission [via vaccines] from the number of people that get ill and need to go to hospital. If we’ve decoupled them, then the country can cope with a marginal degree of increase in transmission,” Sir Jeremy said.
However Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said there is no evidence that vaccines are not effective against the Indian variant of the virus and, at this stage, the country was still on track for a full reopening on 21 June. However he said the Government was not yet ready to confirm the move and if the Indian variant took hold then the 21 June date would be pushed back.
Meanwhile in Ireland, non-essential retail receives a much-needed boost as stores reopen. Retail Excellence, the representative body for the Irish retail industry, said today was a landmark day for the 280,000 sector employees in the country.
Retail Excellence Managing Director Duncan Graham told broadcaster RTE that the easing of restrictions was different to those that had happened before.
“Thankfully, our vaccination rollout is picking up pace and we have had strong assurances from the Government that we are not going backwards.
“Finally, this means that retailers can plan for the weeks and months ahead with the sort of confidence that has been missing for over a year,” Graham said.
Like shoppers in the UK, Irish shoppers must still adhere to social distancing rules within stores and continue to wear face coverings. Shoppers are being urged to shop locally if they can to support their communities’ recovery from the pandemic.
Retail reopened in Northern Ireland on 30 April with the Northern Irish Government pledging to offer every shopper a £100 voucher to spend in non-essential physical retail stores later this summer to give the sector a much-needed boost.