Spread of Omicron variant and new restrictions keep UK shoppers at home

High coronavirus infection rates and tighter restrictions in some parts of the UK kept shoppers away from the high streets on Boxing Day with some big retailers remaining shut for the traditionally busy day of sales.

Footfall was down 45 per cent compared with Boxing Day 2019 in retail destinations across the UK, according to data collated by Springboard up to midday on Sunday.

Central London, where official data show one in 20 people are infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant, was hit particularly hard with shopper numbers 67 per cent below 2019 levels, the specialist retail data group said.

On Oxford Street, the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare, there were queues to get into Selfridges but other big stores, including Marks and Spencer, John Lewis and Next did not open.

Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, blamed the lower footfall on “consumers’ ongoing nervousness about the Covid infection rate” and the move by some big retailers not to open.

The decision by the three devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to impose tighter restrictions than in England from Sunday was reflected in the early footfall data.

In Northern Ireland, the number of shoppers was down 73 per cent compared with the same day in 2019. In Wales, which has reintroduced social-distancing measures, the number was 53 per cent lower. In Scotland, footfall was down 50 per cent.

In England, where UK prime minister Boris Johnson has so far held off from taking further action to try to halt the spread of Omicron, footfall was down 43 per cent.

The UK reported a record 122,000 coronavirus cases on Friday but paused collating the figures over the Christmas weekend. Johnson is set to examine the latest Omicron data on Monday and decide whether further guidance or restrictions should be introduced in England in the run-up to the New Year’s celebrations.

The prime minister has promised to recall parliament before introducing more restrictions but is running out of time to do so ahead of the new year: a recall of MPs requires 48 hours notice. Johnson would also likely face a harsh political backlash from ministers and MPs in his own party, who are sceptical of further restrictions.

Those with knowledge of Johnson’s thinking said he was more likely to tighten guidance if the data suggested hospitals may be at risk of being overwhelmed.

Preliminary official findings at the end of last week suggested people infected with Omicron were up to 70 per cent less likely to be hospitalised than those with Delta.

“The latest research on Omicron supports Boris’ decision to be cautious. I don’t see why he would recall everyone to Westminster when things are starting to look as if we can make our way through it,” said one minister.

The British Retail Consortium warned that non-food retailers had lost £30bn during the three previous lockdowns and said any tighter restrictions would “add further pressure on retailers and high streets at a time when many are still recovering from previous closures”.

Even before the pandemic, Boxing Day had been losing its status as a key trading day for retailers due to the rise of online shopping, which has a more regular cycle of discounting — a trend the pandemic has accelerated.

Data from Barclaycard suggested that 45 per cent of shoppers planned to avoid high streets and were targeting online sales with average spending forecast to be £247, up £61 versus 2019.

Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst, described the Boxing Day sales, as “not even a pale shadow of [their] former self”.


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