In Bethnal Green, east London, on Saturday evening, Sumen Sumen, manager of the popular Plant Warehouse, was horrified to learn he would have to shut six days before Christmas, gesticulating to his shop full of people buying festive gifts.
“It’s absolutely disgusting, such short notice. I find it heartbreaking that we are going to have to close before Christmas. Our entire business is perishables – these plants will become as useless as yesterday’s newspaper.”
His daughter, manning the shop till, put her head in her hands and said: “Oh my God.”
Their reactions summed up those of hundreds and thousands of owners of non-essential shops and services in London, the south-east and the east of England this weekend. Shop owners and business leaders branded the abrupt movement of these areas into draconian new tier 4 restrictions as an “absolute disaster”, warning it would cause egregious harm to firms reliant on the crucial run-up to Christmas.
The prime minister’s announcement that non-essential shops and services such as hairdressers would have to close from midnight on Saturday was greeted with disbelief and fury.
Business leaders were united in their dismay, one describing the government’s panicky response as a “huge blow” that left many firms with Christmas stock they will be unable to shift.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) branded Boris Johnson’s unveiling of tier 4 as disastrous amid fresh calls for greater financial support for hard-pressed businesses.
Its chief executive, Helen Dickinson, even questioned whether the “hugely regrettable” decision would do much to stem cases of Covid-19.
“Retailers have invested millions of pounds making stores Covid-secure for customers and staff, and Sage’s advice has said throughout that closing non-essential retail has a minimal impact on the spread of the virus,” she said.
Elsewhere, Rachael Robathan, the leader of Westminster City Council, which includes London’s West End, said the move left businesses “staring into the abyss after having had a last gasp at pre-Christmas sales snatched from them”.
Back on the streets, across the road at Sumen’s sister business, the Flower Warehouse, the mood was similarly bleak. Again, the focus was on the huge amounts of stock, now suddenly obsolete – including 20 newly arrived Christmas trees. Shop worker Tara Kirwan said the new restrictions guaranteed a desolate Christmas for her because of lost wages. “It’s going to be tough, it really is. It’s also crazy because this place is really airy and spacious.”
Up the road, inside the Hive delicatessen, shop worker Diego Flumian described the seemingly sudden decision to move into tougher restrictions as agonising.
He said: “It’s very painful for a business. It would have been helpful to have an idea beforehand, it’s these sudden changes that are the most disruptive.”
Referring to the fact that tier 3 restrictions for the capital had been unveiled just on Monday, Flumian added: “We changed at the beginning of the week and now we are going to have to change again. But I also get it, I get that it needs to be done and the politicians know what they are doing.”
Although the Hive will remain open for takeaway. he said that the business would be severely hit and already was. Normally three workers would be needed on a Saturday; yesterday just Flumian was required.
Along the same stretch, at Hurwundeki hairdressers, news that the business suddenly had just a couple of hours of trading remaining before Christmas left staff speechless. When told of the incoming measures, one of the salon’s staff was disbelieving. “What?” he said. When asked to elaborate on his reaction, he simply put his head in his hands.
The prime minister’s announcement follows figures last week showing that the second lockdown during November ended a six-month run of steadily increasing retail sales.
Clothes shops were especially hard hit last month by lockdown restrictions and most had reopened in December with hopes of strong sales in the run-up to Christmas to recover lost ground.
In March, sales fell by more than 94% in London on the first Saturday after lockdown was imposed. Early estimates of footfall in London on Saturday by the BRC showed it was already down 40%.
Diane Wehrle, head of policy at the BRC, said most shops had stocked up for the last few days of Christmas shopping now that most internet retailers had confirmed that they could no longer guarantee gifts arriving in time for 25 December.
Shares in retail groups are expected to fall when financial markets open on Monday, but investors are expected to restrain their urge to sell as they shrug off the effect of a third lockdown and focus on the benefits of a vaccine opening up the economy from the spring.