Shops will be able to stay open until 10pm six days a week when they reopen in April after months of closures, the government has announced.
The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the extended opening hours on Monday to Saturday would help shoppers return to high streets safely when non-essential shops are permitted to reopen in England from 12 April.
The move is likely to be welcomed by shoppers, who in December went to stores such as Primark in the middle of the night to avoid crowds; and retailers whose finances have been badly damaged by enforced store closures. Shop staff, however, may be less enthusiastic about working late into the evening.
The British Retail Consortium estimated this week that shops had missed out on £27bn in sales across the three lockdowns, a huge shortfall that had contributed to closures and job losses during the pandemic.
Shops will be able to extend their opening hours from 7am to 10pm to help customers avoid peak times and ease transport pressures, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Announcing the temporary measures, Jenrick said: “To support businesses to reopen and recover, I’ve extended measures to allow shops to stay open for longer. This is part of a package of support to help reopen our shops and high streets safely, backed by £56m.
“This will provide a much-needed boost for many businesses – protecting jobs, reducing pressure on public transport and supporting people and communities to continue to visit their high streets safely and shop locally.”
The shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, said extra hours should be voluntary or covered by new staff and called for strict social distancing to be maintained to protect workers.
Paddy Lillis, general secretary of Usdaw, said: “The reopening of non-essential stores offers a lifeline for many retailers. That is good news in terms of helping to safeguard jobs, but the virus is still out there. We expect retailers to maintain necessary safety measures including 2-metre social distancing, hand sensitisation and limiting the number of customers in-store.”
He added: “Any additional opening hours must be covered by staff who volunteer to work extra hours or through recruitment.”
The pandemic has accelerated the growth of online shopping. Official figures published on Thursday showed that 38% of retail sales were made online in February, up from 20% a year ago, prompting analysts to question whether shoppers will ever return to high streets and malls in the numbers seen before the crisis. The number of visitors to high streets was falling as spending switched online and Britons opted to spend their spare cash on other things even before the pandemic.
Another recent study found that more than 11,000 outlets permanently disappeared from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks in Great Britain last year. Independent retailers and villages fared far better than chain stores and city centres as the shift to working from home and a desire to avoid public transport benefited more convenient neighbourhood shops.
John Lewis confirmed plans earlier this week to permanently close eight more outlets, including department stores in York, Peterborough, Sheffield and Aberdeen, with the potential loss of almost 1,500 jobs. Its chair, Sharon White, has talked of an economic earthquake. “We’ve seen decades-worth of change in the space of one year. Shopping habits have changed irreversibly,” she said.
The government has also announced it will extend flexible working hours on construction sites, and allow food deliveries to supermarkets over more time periods. Other measures include keeping the flexibility for pubs and restaurants to put up marquees to help increase seating capacity in a Covid-secure way.