15 May 2020

On Sunday 10 May, the Prime Minister set out the "first sketch" outline of the Government's roadmap for easing out of lockdown and taking steps towards normality. This was followed by the key strategy document, "Our Plan to Rebuild: The UK Government's COVID-19 Recovery Strategy" on Monday 11 May. The timetable for the re-opening of non-essential shops and personal care, hospitality and leisure facilities is set out in 3 phases, subject of course to the public health tests and requirements continuing to be met:

Phase Effective from Detail
1 Wednesday 13 May  Garden centres can re-open, providing that they can meet the COVID-19 Secure and social distancing requirements. While other areas of retail were hoping to take advantage of this relaxation of the lock-down included those consisting of mainly outdoor premises, where the risk of infection is lower, this relaxation has been limited to garden centres and plant nurseries only at this point.
2 No earlier than Monday 1 June  Non-essential shops to start reopening on a phased basis. Guidance on which retailers fit into which phase and the possible phased timetable  has yet to be published.
3 No earlier than Monday 4 July "At least" some of the hospitality industry, including pubs, restaurants, personal care and some leisure facilities can start to re-open. Again, further detail on this has yet to be published.

The COVID-19 Secure Guidance – working safely in shops and branches

The central Recovery Strategy document references further guidance documents, including the "COVID-19 Secure" health and safety guidelines, to enable each type of workspace to operate safely. In terms of the requirements imposed on retail workplaces and employees, these are set out in the Guidance on working safely in shops and branches, published on Monday 11 May as part of the raft of guidance on making workplaces COVID-19 secure. The retail workplace health and safety requirements have been outlined in our article.

In terms of customer-facing measures, the store-specific COVID-19 Secure Guidance outlines various practical considerations businesses should take into account when planning their re-opening. It very much emphasise the need for each business to work out the specific actions it will need to take, using the outline considerations in the guidance while taking account of the nature of their business, the type and size of premises, and how it is organised, operated, managed and regulated. It includes sections on managing and restricting contact with and between customers, cleaning and hygiene of customer areas, including the use of fitting rooms, and the handling of goods, including collection and returns points and dealing with refunds.

Taken in conjunction with other published guidance, including that from the British Retail Consortium, retailers should continue to use this interim phase to ensure that they are ready to re-open to the public as soon as permitted under the timetable, when it materialises. This should also include revisiting advertising and marketing materials, and the use of social media to promote both the reopening of stores, as well as reinforcing the measures which the business has put in place to ensure both their staff and the public are protected. It should include publishing the required risk assessment certificate on your website, as set out in the Guidance, and/or in other social media channels. This will serve to reassure both your employees and the public that the COVID-19 secure messages and guidance have been fully taken on board, actioned and will be actively monitored.

Forthcoming guidance on the phased re-opening of stores?

The Recovery Strategy makes clear that non-essential retail will only be opened when and where safe to do so, and subject to retailers being able to follow the COVID-19 secure guidelines referred to above. The Strategy also trailed the fact that non-essential retail re-opening will be done in phases, with further guidance to be forthcoming on the approach that will be taken to phasing, including which businesses will be covered in each phase and the timeframes involved. To date this guidance has yet to materialise. However, and in the meantime, two taskforces have now been set up by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, one dealing with non-essential retail shops and the other with pubs and restaurants. The stated objectives of these are to:

  • ensure that COVID-19 secure guidelines are developed, building on the existing work settings guidance, with further sector-specific input
  • agree and ensure alignment of all relevant sector guidance
  • provide key sector stakeholders with direct access to ministers.

No further detail or indeed anticipated timings for these taskforce outputs has so far been published.

Questions remain on whether the taskforce and the eagerly awaited guidance on the passed re-opening of stores will provide sufficient clarity and the level of detailed advice that retailers need, and as called for by the BRC amongst others. In addition, will the Government take steps to ensure that regulators take a consistent approach to the new guidance across England? We would certainly welcome guidance to regulators being published in advance of 1 June to ensure that there is a clear message on what the regulations and guidance permit, as well as clear guidance on what approach and action should be taken by regulators and in what circumstances. This will avoid the need for retailers to spend unnecessary time and resources dealing with inconsistent approaches and unnecessary challenges in the run up to and after reopening at a time when rebuilding their business is critical to survival.