Easing of lockdown restrictions is full of loopholes for Dominic Cummings and co – Bill Jamieson

Some shops, deemed ‘essential’, will be allowed to re-open sooner than others but the reasons are far from clear, writes Bill Jamieson.

Dominic Cummings is perhaps pondering his next move as the lockdown restrictions are eased (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire)
Dominic Cummings is perhaps pondering his next move as the lockdown restrictions are eased (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire)

After the lockdown comes a confusing, phased re-opening – and one headed for chaos. “Essential” shops can now re-open in England, with Scotland likely to follow soon, while “non-essential” ones must wait until June 15, with some required to stay closed until July.

“Non-essential”? Herein lies a new batch of ambiguities, loopholes and small-print exemptions that would surely keep the Prime Minister’s chief adviser busy with a magnifying glass and Hubble telescope.

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What is an “essential” and “non-essential” shop exactly? Are there legal definitions? If Dominic Cummings’ definition of “essential” can stretch to 260 miles from London to Durham, how much more elastic the word may prove along our high streets in the coming days.

Essential for whom? It seems to be less about what shoppers consider essential and more about what is deemed essential for the wider economy – or not as the case may be.

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For retail customers, the definition of “essential” and “non-essential” shopping can vary greatly. It is a distinction that is almost existential, defining our life choices and everyday preferences and habits.

Hairdressers, for example, are in strong demand. But they are deemed non-essential and will not open until July. But garden centres and home improvement outlets have now been allowed to open their doors. “Essential”? Certainly for some. But not top of the list for many others.

Open-air markets and car showrooms are allowed to open in England from next week. But all manner of non-essential bric-a-brac items can be bought on an outdoor market stall. And many might consider waiting a little longer for a new car to be hardly an imposition.

Department store giant John Lewis, that aspiring emporium of superior household knick-knacks, wasted no time in announcing a planned ‘phased’ reopening of its stores. It says it will use social distancing rules applied by sister company Waitrose to help shoppers through the ‘experience’.

B&Q, the first-stop-shop for the restless male with time to kill, has been open for two weeks. But bookshops are not. We can buy garden plants and aspidistras – but watch repairers and corner shops selling items from pan scourers to outdoor clothing have to wait a while. Unless, of course, you are a large supermarket.

The distinction is riddled with inconsistencies and anomalies. And the definitions seem to vary according to the size of the retail business and its clout within the CBI and the government.

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However, what does the delay of a week or so really matter for the “non-essential” retailer in the greater scale of things? They can surely wait awhile. But many retail outlets have been hanging on by their fingernails through eight weeks of lockdown, and are close to going under, with a number having already succumbed. Meanwhile thousands of businesses in the hospitality sector like cafes, restaurants, pubs and hotels – “essential” for the economy of the Highlands and Islands – will remain shuttered because social distancing rules will still apply. Earlier this month the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) launched a series of emergency actions to stay afloat, including putting 429 staff at risk of redundancy.

Research from specialist bank Aldermore released this week reveals that small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in the hospitality and leisure industries have been losing on average 54 per cent of their monthly business income. SMEs in the food and drink industry come in a close second. All sectors in the UK have faced massive challenges, with the average SME losing over a third (34 per cent) of monthly business income as a result of the crisis.

Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government announced earlier this week that it will, after all, permit larger shops to at least partially open up sales floorspace in Phase 2 of the exit from lockdown after representations from the Scottish Retail Consortium. However, as SRC director David Lonsdale commented, “it does beg the question – why not just go the whole hog and allow all shops, regardless of size, to re-open in Phase 2?”

And a searching question is begged about all of this: whether the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” is legally enforceable. What of ‘grey’ areas where a more discretionary approach to the rules is allowable – the Dominic Cummings loophole. And does such discretion form part of the coronavirus legislation as enacted? The problem here is that the more earnest the attempt to draw up an encyclopedic list of enforceable rules for every contingency, the more ambiguities and inconsistencies are introduced: dangerous territory for the rule of law.

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