Scotland’s First Minister is today (23 Oct) expected to unveil her new 5-tier Strategic Framework for managing Coronavirus restrictions, which is expected to come into effect on 2 Nov. On Tuesday the SRC wrote to the Economy Secretary (see below) urging Ministers not to include the closure of non-essential retailers in their new framework, and setting out the reasons why.

Yesterday we spoke directly with the Economy Secretary and held several discussions with Officials. We’ve also briefed Opposition party frontbenches. SRC will aim to circulate details once the framework is published, and would greatly welcome any member feedback on it.

SRC’s letter of 20 Oct to the Economy Secretary:

Dear Ms Hyslop, 

Coronavirus restrictions 

I trust you are well.  

We understand that the First Minister aims to bring in a new strategic framework and tiered approach to managing the pandemic over the coming days, as a replacement for the Route Map Out Of Lockdown. Giving retailers, their suppliers and other firms a greater sense of clarity and visibility over possible future steps to combat Coronavirus sounds encouraging, and we look forward to learning more in the coming days. 

Given that, and in light of the announcements yesterday in Wales, I wanted to take this opportunity to make clear our position on any notion that so-called ‘non-essential retail’ could potentially be closed as part of either a tier or a circuit-breaker lockdown. 

We fully support the drive to reduce the R number and to get on top of the current public health situation. However, we believe any move to close non-essential retailers will have only a minimal impact on reducing the spread of the virus but would carry significant economic harms. 

The SRC is not aware of any evidence that would justify closing non-essential retailers in any future Scotland-wide, local or circuit breaker lockdowns. Indeed, I’ve set out the facts as we see them below. 

Firstly, the circumstances in March were very different. Since then retailers in Scotland have spent tens of millions of pounds to ensure the safety of colleagues and customers, which includes perspex screens, hand cleaning and hygiene facilities, social distancing and floor markings, and other safety measures. In addition, face coverings are now compulsory for both colleagues and customers and we are very confident that retailers are doing everything possible to ensure shops are safe.  

Closing non-essential retail is not supported by a recent Sage paper which assessed the impact on Covid transmission of the closure of non-essential retail as “low” (page 10: “Very minimal impact on R values”, “Short duration and ability to distance in most settings + face coverings are likely to mitigate well”). The Welsh Government’s own Technical Advisory Cell in its paper yesterday echoed this very point, that closing non-essential retail would have “very minimal impact” on the R number. 

As you know, non-essential retail opened at the end of June and there was no subsequent spike in infections or hospital admissions in the months immediately after, and, as far as we are aware, the situation is the same across Europe. The evidence points to closures as doing little to stem the spread of the virus. 

In contrast, we know the socio-economic impact of closing non-essential retail would be severe. Many retail businesses' survival has been threatened through the pandemic. Our latest Scottish Retail Sales Monitor will be published tomorrow and shows retail sales continue to struggle, with non-food stores especially facing acute pressure with sales down circa 15% on the comparable period last year. 

However the situation is likely to worsen if non-essential retail had to close again, leading to thousands of unnecessary job losses across retail's young and diverse workforce, let alone the impact on store closures and on our high streets. This is particularly so in the run up to Christmas, with the final two months of the year accounting for a fifth of annual retail sales – which is why we have launched our safe shopping campaign ‘Shop Early For Christmas’ over the past few days and which we hope you would endorse.  

Finally, despite our Welsh Retail Consortium colleagues being given advance notice of the consideration of the closure of non-essential retail in Wales, some 24 hours after the announcement there is still no finalised or published list of what is and what is not an essential retail service - despite shops being expected to close in three days’ time and staff expected to find childcare etc. In the event a similar approach is considered here hopefully we can work together and have meaningful dialogue in order to avoid such a situation.  

I do hope this is in order, and if you would like to discuss it further please do let me know. SRC has greatly appreciated the direct access to Scottish Ministers including yourself over the past few months, and if it would be helpful then we would be delighted to pull together a meeting for you with senior retail industry figures so they can explain what they have been doing to keep their staff and customers safe, and the impact of any closure of non-essential retail. 

Yours sincerely,                                                                             

David Lonsdale 

Director, SRC