Will ‘Freedom Day’ backfire for the UK’s high street retailers?


High Street retailers are eagerly looking forward to ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July when shopping can, allegedly, return to pre-pandemic normality. However, the home delivery firm ParcelHero says the Government’s plans to relax almost all Covid-19 restrictions on retailers and businesses could do more harm than good.

ParcelHero’s latest research reveals that more than two-thirds of consumers (68.5%) want mask wearing and distancing measures retained after 19 July. It warns that, as Covid cases surge, the increase in High Street footfall has already faltered over the last fortnight.

ParcelHero’s Head of Consumer Research, David Jinks M.I.L.T., says: “Of course, everyone yearns for the pandemic to be over. The so-called “Freedom Day” is the opposite of that, however. The end to mask-wearing and queues outside stores will restore the optics of normality, but these are the very measures that will enable the virus to spread faster than ever.

“The new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, clearly believes he is still Chancellor of the Exchequer and appears to be putting the needs of the economy over the growing risk to the public. It’s a move that could well backfire as consumer confidence tumbles.

“On 6 July, Mr. Javid told Sky News he was “very comfortable” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that almost all Covid restrictions will be lifted on 19 July, which marks the next stage of the Government’s roadmap. That same day, Javid admitted that resulting daily infections may soar to 100,000.

“Medical experts were quick to speak out against the relaxations. 122 scientists and doctors signed a letter to the Lancet medical journal, saying the UK Government is conducting a “dangerous and unethical experiment” and urged it to reconsider plans to abandon all coronavirus restrictions.

“As a result of these concerns, public anxiety is growing. ParcelHero’s finding that 68.5% of shoppers want masks and distancing measures to remain is backed up by a new Ipsos MORI poll for The Economist. It showed that seven in ten Brits (70%) want face masks to remain compulsory in shops and on public transport for one month after 19 July, while almost two in three (64%) would like such restrictions to remain in place until coronavirus is under control worldwide.

“With that in mind, if it’s confirmed that compulsory mask-wearing will end on Freedom Day, the Government and retailers shouldn’t be surprised if shoppers abandon the High Street rather than compromise their health or holiday plans.

“In recent weeks, the public has become increasingly concerned about the rise in the Delta variant infection rates. Data from analysts at GfK shows overall consumer confidence stalled in June as cases grew. It remained at minus nine, the same as the preceding month, thereby ending a sustained period of growth.

“High Street footfall has already started to decline, with retail analysts Springboard reporting that shopper numbers in June declined by 27.2% compared to the same period in 2019. It found that, after a strong first week of June, as Delta variant cases grew, each subsequent week saw worsening footfall across all retail destinations.

“Tellingly, ParcelHero has seen home delivery and parcel volumes grow 7% in the last fortnight. This indicates that consumers are making more e-commerce purchases and reducing personal visits to friends and family.

“Retailers themselves are worried about the impact that relaxing measures could have on staffing levels. Many who work on the shop floor are in the 18-24 age group, most of whom are yet to be double-jabbed. Businesses are concerned there could be a steep rise in staff falling ill or having to self-isolate. Indeed, the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) has urged the Government to issue more support for indie retailers that are forced to close if staff are off ill because of the ending of Covid measures.

“Freedom Day plans seem to put the needs of the economy above public health. The irony is that ending Covid precautions is likely to put High Street retail back on life support. Earlier this year and well before the rise of the Delta variant, research conducted by ParcelHero revealed that two-thirds of consumers say they will never return to their pre-pandemic High Street shopping habits.”

What are the wider implications of ‘Freedom Day’?

“Freedom Day shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces but could signal greater freedom in how, when and where we work,” says CIPD chief executive.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, said: “Freedom Day shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces, but it could signal the start of greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work. It should be down to individual organisations, consulting with their people, to agree working arrangements after the end of restrictions.

“Regardless of any changes to official guidance from 19 July, employers should continue to ensure that they have the necessary measures in place to give confidence to workers that their workplace is safe. This can include changes to desk spaces, shift patterns to help workers avoid busy times on public transport and use of one-way systems to reduce staff contact while the risk of infection remains. This will be particularly important in these early weeks while the vaccination programme is still ongoing.

“Businesses shouldn’t rush to simply revert to how they used to work now we have experience and evidence that it can be done differently, and with positive impacts on employee health and wellbeing, inclusion and productivity.

“People generally want a mix of workplace and home working, and the possibility of more choice in their working routines, meaning hybrid working can provide an effective balance for many workers. Employers should be trying to understand and support individuals’ preferences over more flexible working arrangements where possible, balanced with meeting the needs of the business.

“However, not everyone can work from home. Organisations should also look at increasing flexible options working for those who can’t work from home using different types of flexible hours arrangements. This will help avoid the creation of a two-tier workforce where home and hybrid workers have considerable flexibility while many other employees have very little.”