Britain to Finally Unlock as Freedom Day ApproachesOwen Mitchell
Britain looks set to lift most of its remaining COVID-19 restrictions next Monday in what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”, despite warnings that there could be 50,000 new cases detected daily.
Freedom Day will see all remaining businesses reopen including nightclubs, while capacity caps will be lifted, and bars and restaurants will no longer be restricted to table service.
The Government will abandon its “work from home” guidelines, but it will be left to employers and their staff to decide when workers go back to their desks. The approach is unlikely to go down well with senior Tories, who have said that the Prime Minister must tell workers to go back to the office to boost the virus-stricken urban economy.
The change in working habits has been well-publicised since the start of the pandemic, with the Bank of England becoming the latest firm to announce a policy of flexi-working. It is therefore not clear just how many staff would return to offices full-time, should the Government indeed choose to pursue a policy to get staff back to their respective places of work.
In terms of retail, the removal of restrictions, which coincide with the school summer holiday period, is likely to see a dramatic increase in consumers visiting bricks and mortar destinations. However, there are a number of factors which will determine if and when footfall reaches pre-pandemic levels – such as levels of consumer confidence, working habits and the effects of the ever-increasing popularity of e-commerce.
Just hours after the Prime Minister announced that hospitality businesses will no longer legally have to enforce face coverings, several high street stalwarts including Revolution Bars and Young’s Pub Group said they will ditch the requirement for customers and employees to wear masks in their English sites.
This policy has not been adopted universally. The ‘Big Four’ supermarket chains plan to introduce their own rules – Tesco will adopt a traffic light system to manage the flow of shoppers, Asda will employ safety marshals to ensure social distancing and Morrison’s will increase the number of home delivery slots for customers.
While the 19th is a welcome milestone for retailers, it represents less of a day of freedom for commercial property owners as the ban on evicting tenants will continue until March 2022. Big players, such as real estate investment trust Hammerson, are coming under increasing financial pressure as enforced store closures during lockdown have hastened a decline in rental income and property values, which were already falling before the pandemic.
Despite landlords like Great Portland Estates and Secure Income REIT faring fairly well, generally rent levels remain subdued – Hammerson collected just 46 per cent of the amount owed for the first half. Shop vacancy rates are at a three-year high – 14.1% according to the British Retail Consortium. It seems selling assets and paying down debt with the proceeds is one of the few levers firms like Hammerson have left to pull.
Next Monday promises to be a monumental day in Britain’s battle against the effects of the pandemic as life begins to return to normal. However, for many businesses Monday is just the start of a long road to recovery.
Owen Mitchell, Account Executive, Innesco