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Which shops are open and will safety measures protect you from coronavirus?

A scientist gives his expert view on whether retailers' social distancing measures are enough to protect shoppers

Which shops are open and will safety measures protect you from coronavirus?

Non-essential shops are now allowed to open across the UK, but not all retailers have reopened yet – and many people are avoiding stores while coronavirus remains a threat.

Long queues formed outside popular clothes shops including Primark, TK Maxx and Zara when stores first reopened in England.

But shoppers will have found their favourite stores operating very differently once they got inside.

Here, we look at which shops are reopening and get expert advice from a scientist on whether shops’ social distancing measures will help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Which shops are open?

Which? contacted several major retailers to ask whether they’ve reopened their stores yet, and to find out what steps they’re taking to keep staff and customers safe.

The table below shows what we’ve found out so far. We’ll keep it updated as we learn more.

Of course, independent shops in your local area may well have reopened too, or be planning to do so soon.

Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), told Which? that around 90% of independent shops are reopened on the week beginning 15 June, with more to follow.

He said: ‘Those not opening either do not feel ready from a safety perspective, are struggling financially or are in tourist areas and are waiting for the hospitality sector to open.’

One way of checking which stores are open near you is to use Mastercard’s tool at ShopOpenings.com, which checks whether a Mastercard transaction has been made in the store in the past seven days to determine whether it’s open.

Listen: our experts discuss shops reopening on the Which? Money Podcast.

Is it safe to go shopping now?

As you can see from the table above, retailers are working hard to make shops as safe as possible. But how effective are the safety measures in preventing the spread of coronavirus?

We spoke to Professor Keith Neal, the University of Nottingham’s Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, to get his view on the science behind the measures.

Professor Neal said that many of the measures only eliminate very small risks, but it makes sense to have them in place.

The key question, according to Professor Neal, is ‘What can we do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 that has no or minimal inconvenience?’

Here, we explain some common social distancing and safety measures being implemented in stores, and share Professor Neal’s verdict on each of them.

1. Hand sanitiser stations

Washing your hands regularly remains one of the most important things you can do to control the spread of the virus. In lieu of basins with running water, all major retailers have installed hand sanitiser pumps at store entrances.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

‘It’s a good idea because it’s nice and simple. It can help manage the flow [of people] into the shops, because you have to wait there to do it. And it’s not actually inconveniencing people.’

2. Gloves

Many people – both customers and staff – are choosing to wear gloves in shops, but is there any point?

Professor Neal’s verdict:

‘You can’t wash gloves as easily as you can wash hands,’ says Professor Neal.

He explains that your skin is actually better at killing the virus than gloves are, although there may be some situations where gloves are useful for certain members of staff.

3. Masks and face coverings

retail staff wearing mask

Wearing face masks is not compulsory in shops, despite them now being required on public transport.

Still, many retailers provide masks for staff who wish to use them.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

Masks are really a matter of personal choice. ‘The problem with masks is that they’re there to stop people who are coughing from spreading the disease. And if you’re coughing, you shouldn’t be out,’ he explains.

In crowded spaces where you can’t social distance, such as the London Underground, masks can be very useful.

Professor Neal adds: ‘You wear a mask to protect other people. Other people wear a mask to protect you.’

4. Protective checkout screens

If you’ve been to a supermarket during lockdown, you’ll be used to these by now – transparent screens dividing the cashier and customer.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

Screens are a good idea. ‘Any droplets or particles you breathe out will hit that screen and become essentially non-infectious, because they’ll just sit there on the screen,’ he says.

Unless you touch the screen, which isn’t advised, these make everybody safer.

5. Temperature checks

To our knowledge, only two retailers, Apple and Furniture Village, are checking customers’ temperatures before letting them enter stores. Robert Dyas is checking the temperatures of its staff.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

The fever you’d have from COVID-19 is likely to be so high that you’d know you had a fever and probably wouldn’t want to go out. But that doesn’t mean temperature checks are useless.

‘It may identify a few people who shouldn’t be out,’ Professor Neal says, ‘but I think hand washing is better.’

Much like hand washing, temperature checks act as a reminder that there’s a pandemic underway, and we should behave accordingly.

6. Shopping alone

Most retailers require customers to shop alone, or at least without any other adults from their households.

Go Outdoors and Waterstones were the only retailers we spoke to that are not encouraging customers to shop alone.

Ikea, on the other hand, will only allow parents to bring one child with them.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

‘There’s no reason to go shopping with another person unless you’re a single parent.’

7. Quarantining items

Waterstones made headlines a few weeks ago when it announced it would quarantine for 72 hours books that customers had touched but not purchased.

Other shops are taking a similar approach, leaving products off the shelves for at least 24 hours if they’ve been touched or returned by another customer. And we haven’t heard of any clothes shops that letting customers try on items in changing rooms yet.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

Professor Neal told us that quarantining items would reduce the amount of virus, but he couldn’t comment on the impact it would have on transmission.

‘I would be more worried about catching COVID from an asymptomatic person breathing out in Waterstones than from touching a dozen books that they’d touched,’ he says, ‘because I can wash my hands and not put them near my face.’

However, there is still value in putting touched items aside if retailers can make it work. ‘It’s a pragmatic, simple step which – if they can [make it] work within their business – is a perfectly reasonable step to take.’

8. Social distancing

Under current guidelines, stores are required to have enough space to allow customers and staff to keep a two-metre distance from others.

Every shop we contacted had limits on the number of customers allowed in store to help with social distancing, based on the size of each store.

Topshop said it was allowing around 16 square metres per person, while Waterstones is allowing three to six people per 93 square metres, which works out as about the same. Homebase says a typical store can allow 30 people at one time.

However, in England, new guidance will allow businesses to cut social distancing to ‘one metre plus’ from 4 July provided ‘mitigating measures’, such as the use of face coverings, are in place.

Professor Neal’s verdict:

There’s no easy answer on how far away we should keep from others.

‘The further you are away, the less the risk,’ he says. Two metres is safer than one metre. But three metres is safer than two metres.

‘You could make it 10 metres and it’d be even safer, but it’s impractical – this is the problem.’

Will shoppers return to the high street?

No matter how much effort retailers put into making their stores safe, it won’t be enough for some people.

Some 38% of the public do not feel confident about their health and safety when returning to the shops, according to a Which? survey of 2,002 UK adults carried out at the start of June.

And a survey from Meepl found that 20% of shoppers say they’ll never go back to bricks and mortar clothes stores again.

When we asked our followers on social media, some of those who had been shopping said they’d witnessed customers ignoring signs. Others said they would stick to shopping online for the time being.

‘We’ve managed social distancing in food shops already,’ Professor Neal says. So he thinks it’s possible we could manage it in non-essential shops as well.

It’s promising too, that other European countries have reopened their high streets without seeing major spikes in cases so far.

Asked whether he would go shopping himself, Professor Neal said he would, but that he’d wait until the queues had died down and shops had got used to social distancing.

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