Businesses across the hospitality and retail sectors in England called on the government for clarity over when the new national lockdown would end as they braced themselves for a month or more of closure on Thursday.
Owners of hotels, pubs, restaurants, gyms and ‘non-essential’ retailers expressed concerns that lockdown would drag on beyond the December 2 deadline set by prime minister Boris Johnson and force them to keep their doors closed during the crucial Christmas trading period.
The extension to the furlough scheme announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak on Thursday led to fears that the country would be in and out of lockdown restrictions well into spring next year.
“I hope that this extension does not make it OK in government eyes to extend the lockdown further. Even with furlough payments and rates holiday we will still be burning around £3m per week,” said Humphrey Cobbold, chief executive of PureGym.
“We think the exit strategy is clear and simple — allow essential services like ours to serve people and improve the nation’s health,” he added.
“The big question for me is how do we get out of these restrictions. When do they start reviewing them? Without it businesses will lose hope, and some kind of belief that the government is going to get them out of these things,” said Ralph Findlay, chief executive of pub group Marston’s.
Ministers were also urged to ensure there was plenty of notice ahead of the reopening. “Government should now be telling people honestly when they expect to reopen. The thing that will stop us opening on that morning will be the fact that we were only told the night before,” said Mark Sesnan, chief executive of GLL, which runs local council fitness centres across the country.
“They say they are following the science but the science doesn’t change overnight,” he added.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said prolonging the lockdown in England beyond early December would be “catastrophic”, adding that the planned four-week closure of stores was already enough to put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk.
Several large retailers, including Primark and Marks and Spencer, have called for trading hours to be extended should lockdown be lifted in December to help companies claw back lost revenues.
Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, said longer hours would also help both customers and employees maintain social distancing during the normally busy festive period.
The new lockdown measures also caused confusion for some parts of the retail sector after homeware stores, which had been added to the list of ‘essential’ retail part of the way through the first lockdown, were omitted this time.
Home furnishings retailer Dunelm, which was forced to close its 145 stores, called the decision “unexpected and inconsistent”. In contrast, some DIY stores said they would remain open, informing customers they would only be allowed buy specific items rather than browse.
There were also reports of problems at some hotels, which had remained open under the guidance that guests could finish their stays. Police had threatened to fine one hotelier for not closing, according to UKHospitality.
The less draconian nature of the second lockdown — with schools, factories and many other workplaces allowed to remain open — was reflected in traffic volumes.
Unlike the empty roads at the beginning of the lockdown in March, traffic levels were near normal, according to the AA.
Ben Sheridan, an AA patrolman in the Greater Manchester area, said that volumes on the local motorway network “was maybe slightly less . . . during the morning rush hour” but said it was especially busy around schools as many parents opted to drive their children rather than rely on public transport.
Drivers of Metrolink trams in Manchester reported that there were fewer passengers although Transport for Greater Manchester said it did not yet have comprehensive data.
Morning rush hour drivers reported little difference in traffic levels in and around Newcastle, while Nexus, which operates the Tyne and Wear Metro, said that anecdotal evidence suggested morning passenger volumes were little different. “The only absence is retail workers,” said a spokesman.
Similarly in London, congestion in the capital towards the end of the morning rush hour was slightly up compared with last year, according to data from the satellite navigation company Tom Tom.
But railway traffic has taken a hit. Morning footfall at city centre stations, including Leeds, Liverpool Lime Street, and Manchester Piccadilly, was down by at least a third on Thursday from the day before, according to Network Rail.
additional reporting by Chris Tighe in Newcastle and Andy Bounds in Huddersfield