New UK lockdown: Do stores really need to close again?

Imogen Wethered
by Imogen Wethered

After weeks of speculation, the UK government has announced another lockdown in a bid to curb the growth of Coronavirus cases in advance of Christmas. This will result in stores closing until the 2nd of December at the very earliest.

This is a devastating blow to the already downtrodden retail industry, as retailers have invested countless measures of time and resources towards improving social distancing and hygiene initiatives within their stores in the hopes of being able to make up for months of lost sales and to prepare for what was predicted to be a largely unaffected Black Friday and Christmas shopping season.

Looking at the sharp rise in the number of Covid-19 cases and it’s clear that change needed to take place, but do non-essential stores really need to close? We investigate the practicality of the government’s decision, the science behind it and what another alternative might have looked like. We’d love to hear thoughts from across the industry!

Stores have proven not to be a catalyst

Non-essential stores were given the green light to reopen on June 15 – the first type of consumer business to be be given permission to do so, well ahead of restaurants and pubs, gyms, leisure centres and education establishments.

When stores first reopened, there was no attributable spike in cases, yet it could be argued that the recent spike is a result of pubs, restaurants, bars, gyms, fitness locations and even schools reopening.

Shops are surely safer locations than restaurants, gyms and leisure centres, as:

In countries such as the Netherlands, stores were not made to close in their first lockdown and the country still managed to get Coronavirus cases under control by reducing household mixing and eliminating trips to restaurants and fitness and leisure centres. The same is true for their second lockdown.

Make the most out of contactless curbside click and collect during the lockdown

The science: Covid-19 is largely an airborne disease

A recent study that took place in Spain highlights how stores pose less of a risk than other businesses with physical location. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was believed that the main way the virus spreads is through large droplets we expel when we cough or sneeze. However, scientists now openly acknowledge the role aerosols (tiny contagious particles) play in spreading the virus, as they can linger in poorly ventilated indoor environments when exhaled by those who are infected. Without ventilation, aerosols remain suspended in the air, becoming increasingly concentrated as time goes by, and if these aerosols aren’t diffused through ventilation, can become increasingly concentrated and increase the risk of infection.

Therefore, increased airflow and low dwell time are key to reducing the risk of spreading the virus – and these attributes heavily set stores apart from hospitality and fitness locations.

A typical bar scenario

To explain, let’s look at a typical situation at a bar during Covid-19. Capacity has been reduced to 50%. There are 15 patrons and three members of staff. The windows are closed and there is no mechanical ventilation.

Image courtesy of El País.

Without any measures in place, 14 customers will be infected after four hours. If masks are consistently used, the risk of infection drops down to eight.

If the premises are properly ventilated (with a good air conditioning unit), and the time spent in the bar is shortened, there is only the risk that one person will be infected.

Image courtesy of El País.

Dwell time within stores is significantly lower

The risk of Coronavirus spread does appear to be much lower within stores, largely due to their greater ability to ensure: lower customer dwell time, social distancing, hand sanitiser stations, contactless interactions, mask wearing, and they can keep doors open throughout the day.

Furthermore, not only do hospitality, leisure and fitness locations have a much longer dwell time, but they are by nature much more social environments.

Many retailers have also managed to create completely contactless (or near contactless) customer journeys thanks to self-checkout services and contactless payments. In many cases, customers can enter a store, sanitise their hands, only touch products they plan to buy, keep their distance from other customers and reduce or eliminate contact with store staff.

Would a reverse lockdown have been a better approach?

With all this in mind, we wonder if, instead of implementing a blanket lockdown that heavily hits every single industry, the government should have first tried an approach where stores remained open and hospitality and leisure locations closed first? A reverse process to the measures taken to come out of lockdown. Obviously this would be challenging for all non-retailers, but it would have keep part of the economy open.

Sadly, the UK government has, yet again, put measures in place a little too late, and the only option they’ve left themselves with is a blanket extended lockdown across all industries.

In fact, the government seems unable to come up with variable and flexible measures that account for science and the nuances of a situation. This is most evident by the country’s blunt 14 day quarantine measures placed on travellers coming in from outside of our travel corridor locations; whereas other countries are operating better temperature checking measures, Covid-19 testing and self-verification forms to reduce quarantining needs.

Right up until recently, the general public have still been able to meet with up to six other people in restaurants and pubs, and sadly, there have also been many rule breakers. To us, this seems far more likely to have escalated the problem than retail stores.

The case for closing stores

While the above study and several others prove that retail stores pose a significantly reduced threat to consumers than restaurants, pubs and other business types, people are still catching Coronavirus in supermarkets and other retail stores. A friend of mine obeyed the initial lockdown measures to the letter and did not leave their house other than going to the supermarket once a week, and they still caught the virus.

The three tier system has shown that the general public do struggle to follow variable rules and that, perhaps, the only way to truly ensure their safety is to impose strict blanket rules that everyone must follow for short stints. The number of rule breakers that have been visiting restaurants with people from outside of their own household or holding parties has been extreme.

While I struggle to see the logic in forcing stores to close, here’s to hoping that this next lockdown will curb the number of Coronavirus cases in time for a few weeks of Christmas shopping.

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