English retailers fret over Christmas as lockdown 2.0 looms

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The Oxford Street Christmas lights stand lit up after being switched on today, in London, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a new month-long lockdown for England that will start on Thursday, after being warned that without tough action a resurgent coronavirus outbreak will overwhelm hospitals in weeks. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – This year, the annual illumination of the Christmas lights on London's famous Oxford Street was very much a bittersweet moment.

The lights, which were turned on this week, are celebrating the people who helped during the coronavirus pandemic. They should have symbolized the start of a keenly awaited retail season following a year marked by lockdown restrictions.

But with a second lockdown in England set to come into place on Thursday, shops selling nonessential items such as books and sneakers have been ordered to close, at least until Dec. 2. During the first lockdown they closed for nearly three months until mid-June.

The latest decision, according to Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, represents nothing less than a “nightmare before Christmas.”

With much of the British economy to be mothballed once again as the government tries to contain the resurgent coronavirus, many firms face another battle for survival that could see unemployment rise sharply. The Bank of England will likely offer more financial stimulus on Thursday, though there is little it can do to blunt the blow.

“It will cause untold damage to the high street in the run-up to Christmas, cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of the wider economy, with only a minimal effect on the transmission of the virus,” said Dickinson.

The announcement on Saturday of the English lockdown from Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a surprise given that he had for weeks stressed his preference for more regional, targeted strategies to contain the virus. England’s lockdown follows similar restrictions in Wales and Northern Ireland and the re-imposition of widespread restrictions in Scotland.

With new cases showing few signs of slowing and other European countries also imposing new lockdowns, Johnson said he had to be “humble in the face of nature." He said that without a lockdown, coronavirus-related deaths during the winter could surpass those in the spring. The U.K has already recorded the most virus-related deaths in Europe with nearly 47,000.