QUEUES formed at stores across England as thousands of non-essential shops pulled up their shutters for the first time since March.
Customers are being encouraged to go out and spend but to ‘be sensible’ in their approach, as the government seeks to begin reopening the economy ‘gradually and carefully’.
While shoppers generally appeared to be adhering to keeping their distance while queuing to get inside shops, there were images of a tightly packed crowd outside the Nike Town store on London’s Oxford Street.
One customer described it as being ‘a little bit crowded’ but said that staff ‘did all they could to put the measures in place and keep it under control’.
Long lines were seen at Primarks across the country, with dozens of keen shoppers waiting outside branches of the budget clothes store in Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool and Nottingham.
People heading into the Apple store on Regent Street in central London had their temperatures checked and were told they must wear face coverings when inside.
Small business minister Paul Scully insisted it is safe to shop, noting the new looks many stores will have as they attempt to ensure social distancing and good hygiene among staff and customers.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘The high street is going to be a different place to what it was before, with the one-way systems, with the hand sanitisers, and with people not trying clothes on in the same way.
‘But, nonetheless, it is safe to shop. I would encourage people to be sensible, work with the people in the shop but do go out and shop, and start opening our economy gradually and carefully.’
The reopening comes as a survey suggested less than half of people feel comfortable returning to clothes shops.
Results of YouGov polling earlier this month suggested just 40 per cent of people were comfortable to go back into such stores, and only 48 per cent think they would be able to stay the required two metres away from other shoppers.
Some 41 per cent said they believe it is about the right time for shops to reopen, but 39 per cent said it was too soon.
Oliver Rowe, director of reputation research at YouGov — which carried out four surveys between June 2 and 11 on between 1,700 and 4,000 people — said the results show ‘there is a lot of work to be done yet to convince shoppers that it’s business as usual’.
Meanwhile, commuters were pictured wearing masks at London’s Waterloo station as face coverings on public transport became mandatory.
Zoos and safari parks are also welcoming back visitors today, places of worship can open for private prayer while some secondary school pupils will begin returning to their classrooms.
With official figures showing the economy shrank by a fifth in April, ministers are desperate to get businesses going again to stave off another wave of job losses.
Boris Johnson said he did not know whether to expect ‘a flood or a trickle’ when the shops reopened but he hoped people would return in ‘sensible’ numbers.
Visiting Westfield shopping centre in east London yesterday, the prime minister acknowledged some people may be nervous about returning to the high street after so long away but insisted they ‘should shop and shop with confidence’.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak — reported to be considering a VAT cut to stimulate spending — acknowledged further redundancies were inevitable as the government’s furlough scheme begins to unwind.
‘There is going to be hardship ahead. People are going to lose their jobs,’ he said.
Ministers are under intense pressure from Conservative MPs to go further by easing the two-metre social distancing rule so the hard-pressed hospitality sector can also reopen.
Mr Johnson confirmed at the weekend that he had ordered a ‘comprehensive’ Downing Street review of the regulation.
The prime minister said the falling numbers of Covid-19 cases meant there was a greater ‘margin for manoeuvre’ as the chances of coming into contact with someone with the disease diminished.
Mr Sunak said it would be an ‘all-round’ survey of the issue, drawing on advice from economists as well as the scientific and medical experts who have been advising ministers on the pandemic.
He said it would be ministers, not scientists, who would make the decisions on any easing, fuelling the belief at Westminster that the relationship between ministers and the advisers is becoming increasingly strained.
The review is reported to be scheduled to be completed by July 4, the date slated by the government for the hospitality sector to start welcoming back customers.
Mr Scully said it will take a ‘matter of weeks’ for the review, which will take into account international comparisons, but added that the government did not want to be ‘rushed into decisions as we gradually open up the economy’.
Many pubs and restaurants have warned that it will not be viable to reopen unless the social distancing rule is cut to no more than one metre.
The chief executive of trade union UKHospitality welcomed the review, saying the current two-metre restriction could put one million jobs at risk in the sector.
Katie Nicholls warned the rule means many smaller businesses are unable to meet the criteria for safe opening and one third of hospitality firms may not survive the pandemic.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast today, she said: ‘We very much welcome the government’s decision to conduct a review on this because it is a matter of survival or business failure as far as hospitality is concerned.’
The review announcement comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the government not to lift the lockdown until it is proven that its widely criticised coronavirus contact tracing system works.
After it was revealed that the government failed to trace the contacts of a third of those testing positive in the first week of the new system, Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s director for Europe, warned Britain was still in the midst of a ‘very active phase of the pandemic’.
Dr Kluge told The Guardian that while the tracking in England of some 31,000 contacts of 8,000 infected people was ‘encouraging’, the government needed to be sure it could ‘aggressively’ track infections if it is to reopen the country’s economy.
Labour has joined Tory MPs in urging ministers to set out a clear plan for the hospitality sector to return, with shadow business minister Lucy Powell calling on the government to provide guidance on how it can restart.
Today also saw secondary schools in England reopening to some pupils, with Year 10 and Year 12 students returning to get some time with their teachers ahead of their GCSE and A-level examinations next year.
The government has faced criticism that it has not done more to get schools reopened, with some children facing the prospect of having been out of the classroom for almost six months by the time they return in September.
A No.10 source said Mr Johnson was ‘acutely aware’ of the impact the extended closure was having on pupils and was working with education secretary Gavin Williamson on a major ‘catch-up’ plan.