Boris Johnson will try to lead Britons back to the shops next week to help to revive the country’s battered economy.
The prime minister is planning to visit a high street in what would be his first public appearance since the lockdown was imposed. He hopes to reassure shoppers that it is safe to get out of the house and spend as non-essential stores open from Monday.
Only 36 per cent of people in England feel safe outside their home, according to the Office for National Statistics. In a separate survey, one in five said that they would never enter a clothes shop again.
Mr Johnson will emphasise the efforts to make shops safer as well as latest figures showing that the incidence of coronavirus continues to fall in England. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has appealed to Conservative MPs to follow the prime minister’s example in their own constituencies.
Public faith in Mr Johnson has been further shaken in a week in which ministers abandoned efforts to return all primary pupils to school for a month before the summer holidays. A YouGov poll for The Times shows Sir Keir Starmer and Mr Johnson neck and neck on the question of who would make the best prime minister. It is the first time that a Labour leader has achieved parity since Theresa May lost the Conservative majority at the 2017 election.
Consumer behaviour in the weeks and months ahead is critical in determining how quickly the economy can recover. Figures published yesterday showed that it shrank by more than a fifth in April, the largest monthly contraction on record. Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, said that he would be “ready to take action”.
Ministers are braced for heavy job losses on Monday as businesses act to shed staff before they become liable for some wage costs in advance of the furlough scheme starting to wind down in August. Employment figures due on Tuesday will be another reminder of the rising costs of the lockdown.
Retailers have been losing an estimated £1.8 billion a week since March 23. Sales data from Europe suggests that they should not expect footfall to return to normal levels in the short shopping term. Sales in German clothes stores are down 44 per cent and those in France are down 29 per cent three weeks after reopening, according to data from Sum Up, a pan-European contactless payment system.
A survey by Meepl, a retail technology consultant, suggests that one in five shoppers intends to buy clothes online rather than enter a physical store.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said yesterday that “we have an enormous battle on our hands” to get the economy going again.
On Wednesday Mr Sunak told Tory MPs that they should encourage their constituents to get out and spend money by attending the reopening of stores. He told MPs: “Confidence in this country has taken an enormous knock. It is important as we reopen our country and get our economy going again that people have the confidence that we used to. We’re trying to convey to the nation that it’s OK, that businesses are making shops Covid-secure and safe.”
The Bank of England has suggested that the household savings ratio, the proportion of disposable income that people do not spend, could climb to as high as 17 per cent this year.
Paul Johnson, head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that the economic uncertainty was likely to restrain spending, even if people had significant savings. He said: “The savings ratio for the majority of people has gone up enormously because they’ve nothing to spend their money on. There’s clearly a group of people who have a bunch of money to spend but there is significant uncertainty.”
The prime minister will emphasise the importance of sticking to coronavirus safety guidelines during his shopping trip next week, although retailers complain that the two-metre distance for face-to-face contact will severely limit profitability. He said that the present infection levels meant it was possible that just one person in 1,600 had the coronavirus, reducing the overall risk of catching the disease regardless of distance. “We’re working with the scientists to work out a moment when the numbers are down so far that we can really say that the two-metre rule is no longer necessary,” Mr Johnson said. It is understood that this could be within days and that officials have been contacting businesses to ask whether they would object.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has told ministers that changing the rule is an inherently political choice about the level of risk to the public health that is acceptable for the sake of the economy, and that the decision cannot be delegated to scientists. Instead, wearing face coverings in confined spaces could be a way of allowing people to get closer than two metres, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has suggested.