‘Freedom Day’ looms but high streets could see permanently lower footfall, ministers warn
News to dampen ‘Freedom Day’ enthusiasm. With Monday 19 July finally signalled as the day England becomes completely free of all Covid-related restrictions, there’s a warning that footfall across UK high streets may never recover to pre-pandemic levels.
Government ministers believe that if fewer people return to work permanently, many retailers and other companies will take a heavy, or potentially permanent, hit.
Describing Covid-19 as the “largest, most synchronised shot to the economy, our social lives and the high street in living memory”, Luke Hall, the minister for regional growth and local government, said a full recovery “could be impossible”.
According to the BRC-LDC Vacancy Monitor, more than one in seven stores were vacant across UK high streets by April, meaning about 5,000 stores had closed since the start of the pandemic.
Repeated lockdowns have also seen a major shift to online shopping at the expense of physical retail. Meanwhile, if the trend of working from home becomes a more permanent fixture of the way society functions, towns and city centres may well continue to suffer even after restrictions are eased.
Addressing MPs on the Communities select committee, Hall said: “There has been a significant drop in footfall since the start of the pandemic and unfortunately a rise in vacancy rates... the reality is we don't yet know if footfall will recover to pre-pandemic levels.
“There's a number of factors which will affect and determine it, like the confidence to just go back and start shopping again on the high street and and changing working habits”.
Paul Scully, the minister for small business, also stressed that high streets depended on people returning to offices. “Don't expect that if you're not going to come into your workplace, that towns and cities will look the same. If we value [the high street], we've got to use it”, he said.
Up until now, many employers have suggested staff may work from home more permanently, although a flexible home/office arrangement is also seen as a more viable option.
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