Johnson Tells Brits to ‘Shop With Confidence’ as Shops Open

(Bloomberg) --

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged consumers to go out and “shop with confidence” when stores reopen in England on Monday, as he suggested social distancing rules will be eased.

Johnson said coronavirus regulations requiring people to stay 2 meters (6 feet 7 inches) apart in public spaces could be relaxed as infection rates fall.

His signal will be welcomed by Conservative Party colleagues and retail and hospitality industry leaders, who fear keeping the 2-meter distancing rule will make businesses unprofitable. For now, the rule remains in place.

Johnson Tells Brits to ‘Shop With Confidence’ as Shops Open

“People should shop, and shop with confidence,” Johnson said on a trip to Westfield mall in east London. “But they should of course observe the rules on social distancing and do it as safely as possible.”

The prime minister’s comments capture the competing priorities his government is juggling as it seeks a way out of the pandemic lockdown. With one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls of any country in the world, the U.K. is now at risk of one of the developed world’s heaviest economic hits, according to the OECD.

Johnson is desperate to re-start the shuttered economy but at the same time he needs to avoid the risk of the virus spreading out of control again, unleashing a second wave that would prompt restrictions to be reimposed.

Johnson Tells Brits to ‘Shop With Confidence’ as Shops Open

A crucial point of tension is between some of Johnson’s Conservative colleagues who want to reduce the 2-meter rule, and scientists such as Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who have suggested it will need to stay in place for months.

On Sunday, Johnson said there will be more room for “maneuver” in easing the 2-meter rule as the infection numbers fall.

“As we get the numbers down, so it becomes one-in-a-thousand, one-in-sixteen hundred, maybe fewer, your chances of being, 2 meters, 1 meter or even a foot away from somebody who has the virus are obviously going down statistically, so you start to build some more margin for maneuver, and we’ll be looking at that and keeping it under constant review,” he said.

His comments came after Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told the BBC the prime minister was launching a “comprehensive review” of the social-distancing measure, which has “an enormous impact” on the profitability of businesses. Business Minister Paul Scully on Monday told BBC radio the review would take “a matter of weeks” as the government looks at scientific advice and international comparisons.

Safe to Go Shopping

In broadcast interviews on Sunday, Sunak said household finances had been protected during the pandemic lockdown and that people should now feel confident that “it is safe to go” shopping when non-essential stores reopen from Monday.

“The issue is not so much that they don’t have the cash because they’ve been saving over the last few months, it’s whether they have the confidence,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. “We’ve all been sitting at home, we’ve been worried about going out, and I think it’s important now that people do have that confidence to go out.”

Johnson Tells Brits to ‘Shop With Confidence’ as Shops Open

Sunak vowed to continue an unconventional approach to dealing with the “enormous” hit to the economy from the pandemic, suggesting limits on Sunday trading could be eased, while he didn’t rule out reducing sales taxes. The recession the U.K. faces isn’t an ordinary downturn, he said.

Speaking to Sky News, the chancellor said the fact the U.K. economy shrank 20% in April showed “the scale of the impact” the pandemic has had. As non-essential stores prepare to open again from Monday, he said consumers don’t need to be “anxious” about returning to shops.

“It is a safe environment and we should all be able to go out knowing that,” Sunak said. He said he hoped limits would be lifted to allow pubs and restaurants to reopen in early July.

Sunak, a rising star in the cabinet, also insisted he was focused on performing his current job as finance minister and not thinking about leading the ruling Conservative party. “At the moment we are all pulling together in one team.”

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