Nonessential Retail Begins to Reopen in the United Kingdom


July 14, 2020

The United Kingdom is starting to see a return of the workforce for nonessential retail, which reopened on June 15. Shortly thereafter, the prime minister announced further easing of lockdown restrictions as the United Kingdom begins the third stage of its plan. From July 4, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, hotels, and other outdoor activities are able to reopen if they comply with new guidance. From July 13, beauticians, spas, and salons are able to reopen. The UK government has also launched a new scheme, “Eat Out to Help Out,” to help the restaurant industry, giving diners 50% (up to £10) off their bill if they eat in a registered cafe or restaurant on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday during August. To facilitate the reopening of these retail stores, the well-established two-meter social distancing rule will change to “one meter plus.” This Retail Did You Know? explores the issues UK nonessential retailers face from an employment perspective.

The UK government has set out a three-stage plan to ease lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with a view to carefully restarting the economy. The second stage saw the reopening on June 15 of all nonessential retailers, which had suffered greatly during the lockdown period.

As nonessential retailers continue to reopen, employers are reminded that they have an ongoing duty to do everything reasonably practicable to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety. Specific government guidelines have been published for all sectors of the economy specifically permitted to reopen.

Nonessential Retail

On June 15, following eight weeks of lockdown, nonessential retailers were able to reopen their doors to customers. Nonessential retail includes book shops, electronics retailers, indoor markets, clothes shops, and auction houses.

Retailers are required to open provided they adhere to government guidance and have carried out a risk assessment. Lessons and principles learned from essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies have been carried forward into the nonessential retail sector.

Businesses should only reopen once they have completed a risk assessment, which must be carried out in consultation with trade union representatives or workers. Retailers must also have taken the necessary steps to become COVID-19 secure in line with current health and safety legislation. Retailers are advised to display a signed downloadable notice to inform customers and staff that they have complied with the “Five Steps to Safer Working Together” guidance. This notice should be displayed in the shop window or visible outside the store.

It is paramount that retailers put in place the necessary steps to protect customers and staff. Preventive measures should not be limited to the work premises. Employers are advised to work alongside other employers and contractors who share the workplace. Customers have now been told that they will need to wear face coverings from July 24, or face a potential fine of £100 (approx. $125).

Businesses are advised to consider the following:

  • Managing contacts. Employers will need to minimize the contact resulting from visits to stores or outlets. This can be achieved by limiting the number of customers within the store, implementing one-way systems, and encouraging customers to avoid handling products if possible.
  • Social distancing. Social distancing must be maintained wherever possible. Where guidelines cannot be followed, employers must consider whether that activity needs to continue or take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Cleaning the workplace. Work areas and equipment should be cleaned frequently between uses and businesses should provide hand sanitizer in multiple locations. Public toilets should be kept well ventilated and cleaned more regularly. Clothes stores have been advised that customer fitting rooms should be closed wherever possible.
  • PPE and face coverings. Additional personal protective equipment (PPE) may need to be provided to staff and risk assessments should clarify what PPE is necessary for staff. Customers have to wear face coverings from July 24, and employees should not be prevented from wearing face coverings if they wish to do so, even if not required by employers.
  • Workforce management. As far as possible, workers should be split into teams or shift groups and a record of staff shift patterns should be retained for 21 days to assist the NHS Test and Trace service if needed.
  • Deliveries. Contact should be minimized at gatehouse security and warehouses. Noncontact deliveries should be made wherever possible, and the frequency of deliveries should be reduced by ordering larger quantities less often.

Alternatives to Full Reopenings

Nonessential retailers that have concerns about reopening or are unable to implement government guidance should consider alternatives. For example, businesses can develop their online customer functions to introduce or improve online orders and deliveries. Click-and-collect services are also a great way to minimize in-person customer interaction, and businesses can implement contact-free pickup services.

Some retailers have also opted for a phased return, choosing to reopen a select number of stores based on the characteristics of the individual stores, including their commercial viability and ability to adhere to government guidance. For example, large stores in retail parks might be better suited to implement social distancing and orderly queues than small High Street stores. It might also be preferable to open retailers with access to parking while public transport remains limited to essential journeys only.

Developments Effective from July 4

From July 4, pubs and restaurants are permitted to reopen, provided they adhere to the latest government guidance. Indoor hospitality will be limited to table service and guidance will encourage minimal staff and customer contact. Hairdressers will also be permitted to reopen with appropriate precautions. Overnight breaks can resume in self-contained accommodation, including hotels and campsites, as long as shared facilities are kept clean and no more than two households stay together. Most leisure facilities and tourist attractions, including outdoor gyms, cinemas, museums, theme parks, and libraries, will reopen if they can do so safely from July 11. However, close proximity venues such as nightclubs, indoor gyms, swimming pools, spas, and soft-play areas will need to remain closed.

With a view toward assisting restaurants, pubs, and hairdressers to reopen effectively, the present two-meter social distancing rule will be retained with an added caveat: Where it is not possible to keep a two-meter distance, people should keep a social distance of "one meter plus." This means that people should remain one meter apart while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission. All UK return to work guidance has been updated to reflect the change to the two-meter rule, but employers should still make every reasonable effort to enable employees to work remotely. This will apply to the United Kingdom generally, including nonessential retailers that have already reopened in line with previous guidance.

The mitigations will depend on the workplace or setting, and it is advisable to set out mitigations in the risk assessment. For example, on public transport, people must wear a face covering as it is not always possible to stay two meters apart. Examples of other mitigations include the following:

  • Further increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning.
  • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible.
  • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face to face) wherever possible.
  • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using “fixed teams or partnering” (so each person works with only a few others).

Where workers cannot follow social distancing, they should only work together up to 15 minutes at a time. This does not permit employers to place employees in unsafe working environments, and the usual health and safety duties continue to apply. Employers must also be mindful of the needs of clinically extremely vulnerable individuals and clinically vulnerable individuals. Clinically vulnerable individuals who cannot work from home are subject to the same social distancing guidelines as the rest of the workforce.

Key Considerations for Nonessential Retail

Reopening in accordance with government guidelines is a costly and time-consuming task. Retailers will need to spend a considerable amount of time assessing the retail premises, conducting risk assessments, and installing safety equipment where needed. Retailers might also find it helpful to foster good relationships with landlords and stakeholders. Purchasing protective barriers and hand sanitizer and installing signage and posters will also incur time and additional cost.

It may be necessary to contact customers in advance of reopening, or as and when store operations change. If a customer is expecting a delivery, details of social distancing measures should also be explained to the customer in advance. The United Kingdom’s ability to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is unpredictable, and with every milestone, the government publishes updated guidance and recommendations. It is crucial that retailers closely monitor any updates from the government or Public Health England to ensure that they are maintaining a safe environment for staff and customers at all times.

As well as considering the necessary guidance, staff must be adequately trained to ensure that the COVID-19 precautions are implemented effectively. This extends to any third-party contractors who may come into contact with customers and staff.

While the rate of infection in the United Kingdom is presently decreasing, we are not out of the woods yet, and ensuring nonessential retail premises remain as safe as possible is imperative to keeping them open for the long term.

Trainee solicitor Sol Gelsomino contributed to this LawFlash.


If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this Retail Did You Know?, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

Anne Marie Estevez

Gregory Parks

New York
Christina Edling Melendi