Customers turned out in force as England’s retail parks, high streets and shopping centres reopened after a three-month shutdown, with footfall rising by more than a third on last week.
Lengthy queues of often-masked shoppers formed, many well before opening times, across the country’s major cities as people stepped out to bag a bargain or browse the rails for the first time since lockdown.
Shoppers have been encouraged to be sensible and adhere to new hygiene measures and social distancing, with a Government minister saying they are beginning to reopen the economy “gradually and carefully”.
While shoppers generally appeared to be keeping to the two-metre distancing rule as they queued, 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 told the PA news agency that staff “did all they could to put the measures in place and keep it under control”.
Long lines were seen at Primark stores across the country, with dozens of keen shoppers waiting outside branches in Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool and Nottingham.
Despite the large queues, results of YouGov polling carried out earlier this month suggested just 40% of people were comfortable to go back into clothes shops, and only 48% think they would be able to stay the required two metres away from other shoppers.
Some 41% of people said they believe it is about the right time for the shops to reopen, but 39% said it was too soon.
Oliver Rowe, director of reputation research at YouGov – which carried out four surveys between June 2 and 11, involving 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”.
Figures recorded up to 5pm on Monday showed that footfall in England was up by more than a third on last week.
Total retail footfall across high streets, shopping centres and retail parks increased by 38.8% in comparison with a week ago, the latest data from retail experts Springboard indicated.
On England’s high streets alone footfall rose by 50.5% on Monday compared with last week, while smaller rises were seen at retail parks and shopping centres.
Footfall across all retail destinations in England was around a third less than on the same day last year, Springboard said.
Shoppers described returning to stores as “a delight” and a “wonderful freedom”.
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.”
Commuters were pictured wearing masks at stations and on trains and buses across the country as face coverings on public transport became mandatory.
Zoos and safari parks were also welcoming back visitors for the first time since March, places of worship can now open for private prayer while some secondary school pupils have begun 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 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 – who is reported to be considering a VAT cut to stimulate spending – acknowledged further redundancies were inevitable as the Government’s furlough scheme begins to unwind.
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 and his official spokesman confirmed it will be completed in the “coming weeks”.
The Prime Minister has 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 has said it would be ministers, not scientists, who would make the decisions on any easing, but the PM’s spokesman said the review “will draw on advice from scientific and medical experts as well as economists and papers from Sage”.
It had been 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.
The hospitality sector has welcomed the review, warning that it will simply not be viable for them to reopen unless the social distancing rule is cut to no more than one metre.
Katie Nicholls, chief executive of trade union UKHospitality, called for the Government to provide more clarity and guidance for the sector around reopening, a call echoed by Labour’s shadow business minister Lucy Powell.
Ms Nicholls told BBC Breakfast: “It employs 2.3 million people, so it’s a huge industry that doesn’t have certainty about an opening date, doesn’t know when it can take bookings, doesn’t know what guidelines it will be opening under, and potentially could be opening within three weeks.
“With all of that uncertainty it makes it a very anxious environment for our teams and our staff members, and we can’t reassure them about their jobs.”
The two-metre review announcement comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged the Government not to lift the lockdown until it is proven its widely criticised coronavirus contact-tracing system works.
Meanwhile, secondary schools in England have reopened 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 back, 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.
In travel, EasyJet’s first UK flight since it grounded its aircraft on March 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic took off from Gatwick bound for Glasgow.