Coronavirus: What is considered an essential retail amid second UK lockdown?

Kalila Sangster
·4-min read
 A woman with a face mask walking past a closed sign at House of Fraser department store on Oxford Street. Most shops, restaurants and businesses have closed as the second month-long nationwide Covid 19 lockdown begins in England. (Photo by Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A woman with a face mask walks past a closed sign at House of Fraser department store on Oxford Street, London. Non-essential shops have closed for the second COVID-19 lockdown in England. Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

England is in lockdown for a second time as the country fights to contain a rise in coronavirus cases. The four-week lockdown, due to end 2 December, includes restrictions on socialising and travel as well as which shops and businesses can remain open.

However, the government has been criticised for its “arbitrary” guidance about which shops are essential and what they can sell.

Supermarkets can sell “non-essential” homeware if it is stocked on its aisles but if the items are kept on a separate floor, it must close the area. Government guidelines say: “A business selling a significant amount of essential retail may also continue to sell goods typically sold at non-essential retail. For example, a supermarket that sells food is not required to close off or cordon off aisles selling homeware.”

Tom Ironside, director of business and regulations at the British Retail Consortium, said: “The new regulations create arbitrary lines over what is and isn't an 'essential' retailer.”

Larger retailers, garden centres, and supermarkets that are deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open have been accused of taking advantage of lockdown loopholes for Christmas sales while other shops must keep their doors closed.

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Supermarkets and shops that sell groceries are alongside other items are able to stock and sell non-essential items such as clothing, shoes, books, toys, home décor, candles and photo frames. Shops specialising in these things have been forced to close, missing out on part of the lucrative Christmas shopping season.

These may typically be smaller independent businesses already suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19.

According to the rules, any retailer selling “essential” goods and services can remain open to the public as long as they follow coronavirus guidelines and make their premises COVID-secure.

Retailers allowed to stay open include food retailers, including specialists such as butchers, off-licences and laundrettes.

Shops that have to close include clothing shops, homeware stores, electronic goods and mobile phone shops, and charity shops, although they can continue to operate click-and-collect and delivery services.

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The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the restrictions were necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“These restrictions have been brought in because we have to limit social contact in order to control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives,” a spokesperson said.

“We recognise this continues to be a very difficult period for businesses, which is why we've confirmed that there will be a full package of financial support in place, with the furlough scheme extended and grants worth up to £3,000 per month for businesses legally required to close.”

But many retailers have said that help doesn't go far enough to compensate business owners who've been forced to close, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, told the BBC that “arbitrary lines” had been drawn, with smaller bookshops forced to shut, while large newsagents such as WHSmith, which sell books alongside other items, were able to stay open.

But WHSmith spokesperson told the BBC that the chain isn't really benefiting from the rules, since lockdown means there are far fewer shoppers on High Streets anyway.

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He said the company is operating in line with government guidance, which allows newsagents and post offices to keep trading.

On Thursday WHSmith announced plans to close another 25 shops after slumping to a £280m loss.

Essential retailers that can stay open during lockdown include:

  • Food shops, supermarkets, garden centres, hardware stores, building merchants and off-licences

  • Petrol Stations, car repair and MOT services, bicycle shops, and taxi and vehicle hire businesses

  • Banks, building societies, post offices, loan providers and money transfer businesses

  • Medical services such as dentists, opticians and pharmacies

  • Vets and pet shops

  • Agricultural supplies shops

  • Storage facilities, funeral directors, launderettes, dry cleaners, car parks, public toilets and motorway service stations

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