Retail sector voices mixed reactions to new Covid rules

07 July 2021, 09:52 AM
  • While some have welcomed lifting restrictions on masks and social distancing, others warn it could contribute to growing abuse against retailers or damage consumer confidence
Retail sector voices mixed reactions to new Covid rules

Prime minister Boris Johnson revealed that he is confident the final stage of the lockdown exit roadmap will go ahead on 19th July. He announced that further restrictions will be lifted from that date, including making face masks voluntary and ending the 1 metre-plus social distancing rules.

However, the news has been greeted with mixed reactions from the retail sector. Usdaw, the retail workers union, said changing the safety measures in stores was “too much too soon”. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said, “Wearing a face covering in crowded public areas like shops is not merely a personal choice, it is an important measure to help protect workers who have no option but to interact with large numbers of people as a part of their job. The main purpose of face coverings is to protect others and the Government must send out a clear message on this.”

Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), told Speciality Food he welcomed the announcement with “a degree of apprehension”. He fears that lifting restrictions while Covid-19 cases are growing could “damage consumer confidence until shoppers come to terms with how to adjust to the new rules”.

“Retailers also need more guidance on what is expected of them and what policies on face coverings they can or cannot implement without fear of a challenge on the grounds of equality,” Andrew added. “As employers, our retailers also need to know what they have to do to protect vulnerable staff. In summary, we believe it is the right direction, but we need more guidance, and we would have welcomed some level of consultation on these changes.”

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) also welcomed the announcement, saying it would “raise the hopes of millions of small businesses after 16 months of on-again, off-again restrictions” but added that clarity was needed urgently. “After enforcing restrictions for so long, the Government must not simply withdraw and allow a free-for-all. The sooner we have crystal clear, comprehensive guidance from BEIS, the better,” said FSB national chair Mike Cherry. He added that the government would also need to help consumers “accept the reality that, after a year of being told from the top to stay home, people will need reassurance that it is safe to go out”.

“A strong recovery is finally within our reach. Focus, support and clear guidance from the Government are needed to make it a reality,” he said.

New rules “impossible to enforce”

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), meanwhile, warned that any decision to move social distancing and the wearing of face masks from a legal requirement to guidance will make it impossible for them to be enforced. Among its members, CIEH found that “vital sectors are starting to already experience significant issues with Covid-19 compliance amongst the public, with face coverings and social distancing in particular causing issues,” Gary McFarlane, Northern Ireland director at CIEH, said.

“Attempts to ensure that the public adhere to guidance are increasingly mixed and causing notable stress on the staff responsible for enforcing the rules. Our members are now seeing considerable push-back from a fatigued public, with verbal abuse and refusals to comply reflecting a fraying commitment to following guidance,” he continued. “With enforcement already difficult whilst social distancing and mask-wearing is a legal requirement, any move to make these things a matter of guidance will make it impossible for our members to enforce them.”

The announcement of the upcoming change in Covid-19 guidance follows a reported rise in incidents of violence and abuse during the pandemic. One hundred leading retailers recently wrote to the prime minister, calling on him to support an amendment to a policing bill that would tackle this escalating violence.

However, MPs voted against the new clause, which would have made attacking a retail worker a separate offence. Andrew said the rejection of the amendment was “so disappointing”.

“Retailers, large and small, came together to present a very reasonable request and once again people in power are not listening,” he said. “All I can suggest is that these MPs work in a shop for a weekend to experience the issues first-hand! We will continue to work with other organisations to achieve this legal change. In the grips of this pandemic these same MPs were very quick to call the retail workers ‘heroes’. It seems that appreciation was only short-lived.”

While groups in the food and drink and retail sectors have had mixed responses to the latest update on Covid rules, there is one thing they all agree on: more clarity is needed ahead of 19th July.

What will the changes to Covid-19 rules mean for your business? Get in touch to let us know your thoughts: courtney.goldsmith@aceville.co.uk

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