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18 September 2020

How high street activity is falling as Covid-19 cases rise

Local lockdowns, the end of Eat Out to Help Out, and public caution are all weakening the UK’s economic recovery.   

Footfall on the UK’s high streets has started to drop again, according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics.

The data, provided by customer activity data and intelligence firm Springboard, show that in the week starting 7 September, average overall footfall fell to around 72 per cent of 2019 levels – down slightly from around 75 per cent in the previous two weeks.

While not yet a huge decline, the figures show that high streets, shopping centres and retail parks have all seen a small drop in custom. That raises questions over how rapid the UK’s economic recovery can be, and whether we have reached peak “opening up”.

[see also: Why the UK is sleepwalking into a job crisis]

This drop is yet to be reflected in other sources of overall mobility such as those provided by Apple and Facebook – through Google’s measure of “retail and recreation” mobility has shown some stagnation in the most recent week.

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There are several explanations for the recent stagnation in footfall – and more than one of them may be true, to a greater or lesser extent.

Local lockdowns

Large swathes of the country have been placed under local lockdowns due to rising Covid-19 cases, including the north-east of England, Birmingham and Bolton. 

While the extra measures in most of these places don’t target shopping, they often place household restrictions on activities such as going to pubs and restaurants. The restrictions may also remind the public that the virus is still at large, discouraging them from shopping.

[see also: To Boris Johnson’s government, our vanishing high streets are simply a parallel universe]

However, the data shows footfall starting to decline before the new Birmingham and Black Country lockdown on 15 September, and a while after other local restrictions were imposed – so can’t fully explain the phenomenon.

You can see the places we think are most at risk of entering local lockdown using the New Statesman’s tracker here.

The end of Eat Out to Help Out

The end of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme may also have played a part in the recent drop. While restaurant bookings have not drastically declined to where they were before the discount scheme, the rate of growth seen throughout August has not continued into September, according to OpenTable figures.

Bookings showed large spikes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays – peaking on the summer bank holiday, when they were 216 per cent higher than last year.




Public caution

The final – and most likely – reason, is that the public are aware of rising case figures, and are modifying their behaviour accordingly.

The weekend before 7 September (when footfall started to decline) saw the largest jump in confirmed daily coronavirus cases since May, jumping from 1,813 on 5 September to 2,988 on 6 September. 

Since then, figures have continued to rise, reaching 3,330 on 13 September.



This phenomenon – of public caution leading any government action – was also evident in March, when footfall dropped before Boris Johnson announced any lockdown restrictions. 

It supports the idea – voiced by several economists – that there can be no full economic recovery in the UK without first getting the virus under control.

This means that even if the government avoids taking us into a “disastrous” second lockdown, as Boris Johnson put it this week, we may be heading there ourselves anyway.

[see also: Is the UK heading for a second wave of Covid-19?]

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