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How To Stay Safe While Shopping At Non-Essential Retail Stores In The UK

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The world is still very much in the midst of the pandemic, and the UK has the third most recorded deaths (over 41,000) in the world. However, lockdown is being eased and non-essential shops in Northern Ireland began opening to the public on June 12 and in England on June 15. Lots of retailers experienced long queues from as early as 8 a.m. on the first day of reopening. But is it safe to go shopping now?

Non-essential shops had been shut since March, resulting in job-losses and preventing some who may not be able to shop online from purchasing items. Undoubtedly the opening of shops will help boost the economy which is facing a serious downturn. Already current business confidence has matched that of the 2008 financial crisis, with forecasters predicting the economy will shrink by 8% in 2020, not fully recovering until 2023.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said “people should shop, and shop with confidence” when retailers open. But has the government put many in the predicament of choosing between health and boosting the economy? Or will new coronavirus measures mean it’s perfectly safe to go out shopping?

What Is A Non-Essential Shop & Which Ones Are Open?

While bars and restaurants are still closed, non essential retail shops are beginning to open. These include fashion and furniture retailers, bookshops, health and beauty retailers and sports shops. Individual shops have the choice of whether to open — it isn't mandatory. Some may stay shut if they believe they can't implement COVID-19 safety guidelines. Some of the shops that have chosen to open include larger retailers like Primark, Ikea, Marks & Spencers, and Boots.

Is It Actually Safe To Go Shopping Now?

Scotland and Wales have chosen to keep non-essential shops closed, in line with both countries' decision to take a slower approach to lockdown easing than seen in Northern Ireland and England.

There has also been criticism of the decision to open non-essential shops based on photos of shopping districts like Bicester Village in Oxfordshire showing groups of customers not social distancing. But the government has released new safety guidelines which retailers will have to follow if they want to open. As Wired reports, shops large and small are implementing the two-metre rule, only permitting a certain amount of people in the store at a time, and cleaning clothes and products that have been touched or tried on before taking them off the shop floor for 72 hours. Some facilities at stores will be closed including changing rooms and toilets, so if you require these, it's worth checking individual stores' policies before you set off to shop. Moreover, many public toilets in town and city centres remain closed which, as the BBC reports, is a serious concern for would-be shoppers who depend on being able to easily access toilet facilities.

On June 15 as shops in England began to reopen, DR Hans Kluge, the World Health Organisation's director for Europe, issued a warning that the UK was still in a “very active phase of the pandemic.” Per the Evening Standard, he sounded caution over further lifting of lockdown measures until Britain's contact tracing system was able to "aggressively" track infections.

He said: “Contact tracing is key especially as the UK starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures. There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation."

And in late May some members of the government's scientific advisory group SAGE, expressed concerns about the relaxing of lockdown measures. John Edmunds a SAGE advisor and professor of infectious disease modelling and London School of Hygiene told the Guardian: “We cannot relax our guard by very much at all." He added: “I think at the moment, with relatively high incidence and relaxing the measures and also with an untested track and trace system, I think we are taking some risk here.” He was supported by fellow SAGE advisor Sir Jeremy Farrar, who tweeted: "Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John [Edmunds] & clear science advice."

For those who are vulnerable (e.g. pregnant, have a pre-existing health condition that makes you more vulnerable to COVID-19, or are over the age of 70), the government advice remains that you should only leave your home to spend time outdoors, which means going enclosed shops of any kind is inadvisable. Coronavirus is also affecting certain ethnic groups more severely than others. Those of Black Caribbean, Black African, Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi heritage are worse affected by the virus. The government has been criticised for withholding information about how members of these groups can safeguard themselves from the greater risk coronavirus poses to them. The advice is expected to be published in the coming days but in the meantime, if you belong to any of these ethnic groups, you may want to factor that into the decisions you make about heading to retail stores.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself Shopping?

Parvinder Sagoo, Medical Advisor at Simply Meds, told Metro he recommends wearing a mask at all times while shopping. "Keep the mask on at all times, even when you are in less crowded areas," he said.

Masks will now be mandatory on public transport from June 15 and the government advises they should be worn in other enclosed public spaces too. This includes retail stores. Per Wired, some shops including John Lewis have taken it upon themselves to provide masks for customers. Keeping a distance from others is also critical. “Try and keep your distance from others as much as possible, if a shop looks crowded or has a queue that is not adopting social distancing then avoid [it],” Sagoo advised. The BBC has shared some additional safety guidelines including only touching items you are going to buy, paying with contactless cards, being mindful of exit and entrance signs, and using hand sanitiser upon entry.